Nothing triggers the “ick” reaction quite like the “L” word, especially for a parent. A head lice infestation is easily preventable, and even if it’s too late, it’s also easily treatable. Here’s a handy guide for you to better know your enemy.
Here’s What’s True About Lice
Lice are not harmful
They are irritating, yes, but unlike other creatures that feed on human blood, head lice won’t spread disease. Body lice, which are a different species than the lice found on your head, can spread diseases, but if you shower and wear clean clothes, they won’t find you to begin with.
Lice live in your hair
This can also include your eyebrows and eyelashes.
They don’t hop and they don’t fly. This means that they are mostly spread by direct contact with the head of someone with an infestation. Sometimes, sharing clothes or hats that have recently been in contact with a person who has head lice, or lying on the same rug, pillow, or bed as her can lead to an infestation, but this is uncommon.
Lice don’t discriminate
In addition to the shared clothing rumor, it’s also not true that lice only crawl on people with poor hygiene. Anybody can get lice, in any part of the world.
They’re totally common
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 6 to 12 million infestations occur every year in children between 3 and 11 years old. If your child catches them, she certainly won’t be alone.
There are three stages of lice
Lice appear in three different stages of development:
- The nit (the egg)
- The nymph (the baby louse)
- The adult
Lice eggs are laid on the hair shaft, close to the scalp. They are oval-shaped and can be hard to see, as they are only about the size of a knot in thread and may be easily confused with dandruff. In 8 to 10 days, the nit hatches a nymph, which looks like an adult, but smaller. About 9 to 12 days later, the nymph will have grown to a full-size louse, approximately the size of a sesame seed and yellow or gray in color.
Without a host, lice can’t live for long
Lice need to feed on your blood to survive. If they fall off your head, lice will die within one to two days. This explains why it’s less likely, but still possible, that you will catch them from someone’s clothing or furniture.
How Do You Know That Your Child Has Lice?
If your child has lice, she may feel a tickling or itching on her scalp. The itchy sensation comes from an allergic reaction to the lice bites. Scratching can spread bacteria, which can in turn lead to infection.
If your child appears to be itching a lot, take a look at her scalp. Lice are most commonly found behind the ears or at the top of the neck. A magnifying glass and/or fine-toothed comb can be helpful as you look.
How to Treat Lice
Because the chances of transmission between children are slim, it’s not really necessary to pull them out of school — unless your school has a lice policy, and many do. It’s good etiquette to notify the school nurse that you are treating your child for lice, and she can give you more information about specific policies. Schools are obligated to maintain confidentiality regarding health matters, and will be discreet about the situation.
Once the critters have been spotted, the first step is to treat. There are prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medicated shampoos available. Be sure to follow the instructions carefully, as the products contain insecticides and can be dangerous if not used according to directions. Check your child’s scalp after treatment; if you still see active lice 12 hours after treating, consult your healthcare provider before re-treating.
If lice shampoo doesn’t work to treat the lice problem, or you’d like a more natural option, try simple combing. Coat the hair from base to ends with a thick conditioner or an oil (like olive oil) to immobilize the bugs, and make combing a little smoother. Use a good lice comb and move from the base of the hair shaft all the way to the ends. Divide the hair into sections and comb each one thoroughly, rinsing the comb with warm water between runs. Shampoo the hair with your regular product after. The lice and nits will be long gone.
One study, published in Pediatrics magazine found that 96 percent of people were cured of lice infestations after putting Cetaphil skin cleanser on dry hair, combing out nits, and blowing the hair dry. This procedure is repeated once a week for three weeks, as the cleanser stuns and suffocates the bugs, the comb physically removes them, and the heat from the blow dryer kills the nits.
The second step after identifying lice is to check everyone who may have had close contact with your child — starting with the rest of your family. You may consider treating family members proactively, even if no signs of lice are evident.
Finally, it’s a good idea to clean any areas where lice may have fallen. Although they can’t survive long once they fall, taking an afternoon to do a little extra laundry can be helpful. Machine wash items in hot water and dry any clothing, hats, linens, or stuffed animals that may have come into contact with your child. Vacuum rugs, especially if your child has been laying on them, and soak combs and brushes in hot water for 10 to 15 minutes.
If you find out that someone in your child’s class has lice, don’t panic. Warn your child not to bring her head too close to others, keep long hair tied back, and do frequent checks at home. A doctor-reviewed Healthline article recommends tea tree oil to repel lice, so you may consider mixing some into your child’s shampoo.
To learn more about the diagnosis and treatment of head lice, take a look at the CDC’s page about lice.
DeGrandpre, Z. (2013, April 25). Home Remedies for Head Lice: What Works? Healthline. Retrieved from Healthline.
Head Lice. (2013, September 24). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pearlman, D. (2004). A Simple Treatment for Head Lice: Dry-On, Suffocation-Based Pediculicide. Pediatrics, 114(3), E275-E279. Retrieved from Pediatrics.