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What you need to know about head lice

August 21, 2015

The new school year has begun. Chances are that if you have school-aged children, at some point in time you’ll hear those two dirty, little words: head lice. And if your family has had head lice, you aren’t alone- millions of kids in the United States get head lice every year.

What are head lice?

Head lice are tiny insects, roughly the size of a sesame seed. They are one of three different types of lice that can live on humans- head lice, body lice and pubic lice. Although they can be quite a nuisance, head lice do not transmit diseases. They feed on human blood, and are usually found close to the scalp. Head lice are most commonly spread by direct contact with the hair of an infected person. Although sharing personal items such as hats or hairbrushes can transmit head lice, it is much more likely to spread by direct head-to-head contact. Head-to-head contact is common during play, sports activities, camps, and sleepovers.

Contrary to popular belief, the presence of head lice is not an indication of cleanliness or hygiene in the home or school. Anyone can get head lice. Preschool children who attend childcare and elementary-aged children are the most likely to be infested, along with relatives of children in this age group. African Americans tend to be less susceptible to head lice than other races due to the insect’s difficulty attaching to the shaft of their hair.

How do I know if my kid has head lice?

If there’s been an outbreak of head lice at school or with other close friends or acquaintances, go ahead and take a look. Wet your child’s hair and comb through small sections at a time. Examine the scalp and the comb thoroughly.

The best way to know for sure is to find a live louse on the scalp, but lice move quickly and away from light so it can often be hard to spot them. You can also look for their eggs and empty egg casings (known as nits) that tend to cluster at the nape of the neck and behind the ears. Nits will appear as yellow, white or brown specks, but can easily be confused with dandruff, dirt or hairspray remnants.

The way to tell the difference between nits and any other particles in the hair is that nits are firmly attached to the hair shaft. Other particles can be easily removed, but nits require more effort to remove

What’s the best way to get rid of them?

There are several medications available without a prescription at your local pharmacy. Treatment is recommended only for people who have an active infestation. For detailed information on the proper use of these medications, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Be sure to use the nit combs included with the medication to remove lice, nits and eggs. Many experts recommend a second application 9 days after the initial use in order to kill lice that may have hatched after the medication was used.

Although head lice do not live long after falling off a person’s head, it may be helpful to wash linens and clothes- anything that the person has been using for the past two days. Wash them in a hot water laundry cycle as well as a hot dry cycle. Anything that cannot be washed can be dry-cleaned or sealed in a plastic bag for two weeks. Vacuuming furniture and floors where the person might have lounged might also be prudent.

However, the CDC cautions that these supplementary measures aren’t absolutely necessary. Head lice do not live long after being separated from a person’s scalp, so a significant amount of time and money shouldn’t be spent on supplementary measures since it isn’t the primary way head lice are spread.

Important things to keep in mind

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend that children be withheld from school due to head lice. Some schools have “no nit” policies that prevent children from returning to school until they are free from nits. However, it’s important to remember that head lice do not put your children at risk for serious health concerns.

Home remedies such as mayonnaise, olive oil, essential oils, tub margarine and petroleum jelly have not been proven to be effective.

Head lice treatment should only be used if you or your child actually has head lice. As with any medicine, there are risks and benefits with head lice treatments and they should only be used if necessary.

Do not treat an infested person more than two or three times with the same medication if it doesn’t appear to be working. If over-the-counter medications seemed to have failed, seek help from your doctor. This could be due to using the medication incorrectly or resistance to the medication. Your doctor can help you determine next steps.