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Head Lice – Treatment and Prevention

Spotting a tiny little white thing on your child’s hair is enough to make a parent freak out. There is no need to panic. Head lice may be icky but they don’t usually cause any serious diseases.

Head lice are tiny six-legged insects that cling onto the scalp and neck and feed on human blood. A louse is basically the size of a sesame seed and could be difficult to spot although you can still spot them with the naked eye. Lice eggs (nits), however are glued onto the hairs close to the scalp and are slightly harder to see.

head lice

Head lice are most common in young children who go to day care, preschool, or elementary school. Children this age often play very closely together, have more hair-to-hair contact, and they may also share brushes, hats, hair clips, and other things kids normally do. Adults who live with children also have a risk of getting head lice.

Lice usually spreads via direct head-to-head contact that allows the pests to crawl from one person’s hair into another. Lice can also survive for a short period on clothing or other personal items, so a shared hairbrush can help a louse find a new home (head) in no time. Lice cannot jump or fly from one person to another.

Head lice can be white, brown, or dark gray. They are most often found in the hair at the back of the neck or behind the ears. The nits are oval dandruff like specks which are tightly glued to hairs near the scalp. If you try to slide the nits off with your fingers, they won’t budge.

Spotting a live louse or nymph (a young louse) is often the only sign of an infestation. Seeing nits alone can’t confirm an infestation. In many children, head lice don’t cause any discomfort. When symptoms do happen, the most common problem is itching and that could start only weeks or even months after the lice actually move in.

The itching from lice is caused by an allergic reaction to the bug bites. A lot of scratching may lead to sores or raw skin on the scalp. It’s not common, but sores from scratching could actually become infected. Call a doctor as soon as the skin becomes red, swollen, or painful; or the lymph nodes in the neck become tender. These may be signs of a skin infection.

Head lice will not go away on their own. If you suspect your child has an infestation, there are several steps you should take right away. Call your doctor to confirm the diagnosis. Notify your child’s day care or school so other students can be checked. Examine all other members of the household for signs of lice. Finally, treat everyone who’s infected at the same time to prevent it from reoccurring in the near future.

You can find lice-killing treatments over the counter which are made from extracts of chrysanthemums or a synthetic version that is similar. They are considered safe, but they may not be recommended for young children. These products kill live lice but not nits. Follow instructions on the label carefully for how long the medication should be left on the hair and how it should be washed off. A second treatment may be needed 9 to 10 days later. If two treatments don’t do the job, see your doctor for stronger medication.

Ridding Your Home of Lice

Although lice don’t survive long on bedding, it’s best to wash the sheets of anyone being treated for lice. Clothing worn in the past 48 hours should also be washed in hot water. While parents are sometimes told to clean and quarantine all of a child’s stuffed animals, experts say this is not necessary. If your child sleeps with a favorite plush toy, put it in a hot dryer for 20 minutes. That should kill any creepy-crawlies.

Unlike fleas and ticks, which can live off the host,  head lice must live on its host to survive. Therefore there is very little benefit in spraying buildings or subjecting children’s environments to the other remedial treatments.

Parents want to take immediate action for the lice problems their children bring home. Unfortunately, many often think their homes to have lice rather than the children. The truth of the matter is that the majority of head lice transmissions occur through person-to-person contact. Spraying the environment or hiring extermination services for head lice eradication is unwarranted, and can also pose potential health threats.

Fine-Toothed Combs

The famous kutu-comb! Fine-toothed combs are another way to get rid of lice. This comb has teeth fine enough to pull out lice and their nits. It worked for the ancient Egyptians — nit combs have been found in their tombs. The drawback is that it takes a very long time and patience (for both the comber and the child) to comb every last nit out of a child’s hair. It may be more effective to comb the hair after treating with a medicated shampoo to get rid of any stragglers. If your child is 2 years old or younger, you should not use medicated lice treatments. You’ll need to remove the nits and lice by hand.

Head Lice Myths

Head lice are not a scourge of the lower classes, nor a sign of poor hygiene. They affect children across all levels of income, social class, and cleanliness. The bugs can survive underwater for up to 6 hours, so kids who bathe regularly are just as vulnerable. The good news is lice don’t carry diseases.

Head Lice at School

If your child is infested with lice, it is best to inform your child’s school immediately so parents can check their children and take appropriate measures.  After treatment, dead eggs may remain in a child’s hair until they are removed. Some schools have a “no nits” policy, meaning the eggs must be removed before the child returns to class.

School administrators should not consider spraying lockers or coat racks, but rather should adopt a sanitary strategy for the short term storage of hats and coats. In the home, parents should be more focused on thorough nits removal than with unnecessary housework or bagging. Vacuuming is the safest and best way to remove lice or fallen hairs with attached nits from upholstered furniture, rugs, stuffed animals and cars. Placing items like bed sheets in a dryer for ½ hour on high heat is just as effective as washing them. Additionally, parents need only be concerned about items and surfaces that have had recent contact with affected individuals.

Guarding Against Head Lice

If you have young children, there’s unfortunately very little you can do to ward off head lice. Children will be children, and when they put their heads together or share hair bows, lice get a free ticket to ride. Your best defense is to examine your child’s hair and scalp regularly so you can catch an infestation early. Quick treatment will help prevent the bugs from spreading to the rest of the family.

No matter how long the problem lasts, be sure to remind your child that although having lice can certainly be very embarrassing, anyone can get them. It’s important for kids to understand that they haven’t done anything wrong and that having lice doesn’t make them dirty. And reassure them that as frustrating as getting rid of the lice can be, there is light at the end of the tunnel.