If you’ve ever gotten a ‘Lice Alert’ from your child’s school or found the little buggers on your own, you’ve felt that sinking feeling that maybe your child has been infected. You are not alone. Knowing about the different types of lice, how to treat and help prevent it, and keeping a watch out for lice is your best defense.
What is lice?
There are three types of lice- head lice, body lice, and pubic lice. Head lice are a very common problem, especially for kids. They’re contagious, annoying, and sometimes tough to get rid of. The head louse (the singular of lice) is a tiny, wingless parasitic insect that lives among human hairs and feeds on tiny amounts of blood drawn from the scalp. An infection with head lice is technically called pediculosis.
Signs of Head Lice
Even though lice are very small, they can be seen by the naked eye. Here are some things to look out for:
Lice eggs (nits): These look like tiny, yellow, tan, or brown dots before they hatch. They lie close to the hair shaft to keep warm until hatching. Nits also look like dandruff but they can’t be shaken off as such. After hatching (usually within 1-2 weeks after they’re laid) the remaining shell looks white or clear, staying firmly attached to the hair shaft. This is when it’s easiest to spot them.
Adult lice and nymphs (baby lice): No bigger than a sesame seed, the adult louse is grayish-white or tan colored. Nymphs are smaller and become adult lice about 1 to 2 weeks after they hatch. Most lice feed on blood several times a day, but they can survive off the scalp for up to two days.
Small red bumps or sores from scratching: This irritation ranges from mild to severe accompanied by a developing rash. Excessive scratching can lead to a bacterial infection in which case a doctor may need to prescribe oral antibiotics.
You may be able to see the lice or nits by parting your child’s hair into small sections preferably with a fine-tooth comb. Check on the scalp, behind the ears, and around the nape of the neck. A magnifying glass and bright light may help as lice tend to avoid bright light. You should be able to see the lice move as well as identify lice and nits.
If you aren’t certain whether your child has lice, ask the school nurse, your physician, or the local health department.
Symptoms of Head lice
Some kids do not have the classic symptoms but if your child complains of the following issues it is a good idea to check for lice:
- itchy scalp
- sensation of something crawling on the scalp
- tiny spots of blood on the scalp-these can become infected especially if your child keeps scratching
Treating Head Lice
Medicated shampoo, cream rinse, or lotions can be used to kill head lice. These may be found over-the-counter (OTC) or by prescription, depending on what treatments have already been tried. Medicated lice treatments usually kill the lice and nits, but it may take a few days for the itching to stop. Oral medication (taken by mouth) may be prescribed by the doctor to treat very resistant lice. After treatment, your doctor may suggest combing out the nits with a fine-tooth comb and repeating treatment in 7-10 days to kill any newly hatched nits.
In addition to treating your child for lice, it is very important to sanitize and/or get rid of any material that may have come into contact with the remnants of the lice. Make sure to also do the tasks below:
- Wash all bed linens and clothing that’s been recently worn by anyone in your home who has been infested. Use very hot water (130°F/54.4°C), then put them in the hot cycle of the dryer for at least 20 minutes.
- Vacuum carpets and any upholstered furniture (in your home or car), then throw away the vacuum cleaner bag or clean the vacuum canister.
- Soak hair-care items like combs, barrettes, hair ties or bands, headbands, and brushes in rubbing alcohol or medicated shampoo for 1 hour. Alternatively, you can wash them in hot water or even throw them away.
Do’s and Don’ts!
In getting rid of the bugs, there are some things that you should and should NOT do:
- Don’t use a hairdryer on your child’s hair after applying any treatment-some include flammable ingredients
- Don’t use a conditioner or shampoo/conditioner combination before applying lice medication
- Don’t use sprays or hire a pest control company to try to get rid of the lice-these treatments can be harmful
- Don’t use the same medication more than three times on one person
- Don’t use more than one head lice treatment at a time
- Do tell kids to try to avoid head-to-head contact at school (in gym, on the playground etc.) and while playing at home
- Do tell kids not to share combs, brushes, hats, scarves, bandanas, ribbons, barrettes, hair ties or bands, towels, helmets, or other personal care items with anyone else, whether they have lice or not
- Do tell kids not to lie on bedding, pillows, and carpets that have recently been used by someone with lice
- Do examine members of your household every 3 or 4 days
REMEMBER: having head lice is NOT a sign of dirtiness or poor hygiene. Too often a stigma is placed with those who have lice or the parents of those children. The pesky little bugs can be a problem for kids of all ages and socioeconomic levels, no matter how often they do-or don’t- wash their hair or bathe.