What parents should know about head lice

September 07, 2017 | by Therese Gracey, M.D.
Categories: Healthy Driven Moms

When kids are in school and camp, along comes the risk of those pesky little bugs known as head lice. It's important to shed light on something that affect millions of school-aged children in the U.S. each year.

Head lice are known to lay and attach their eggs (called nits) to hair close to the scalp, where they feed on small amounts of blood. The nits are oval, yellow or white, and about the size of a knot in thread.

They develop into adult lice, which are usually pale and gray and about the size of a sesame seed.

While it sounds pretty gross, head lice have nothing to do with poor hygiene. Anyone can get them. In fact, the lice may actually prefer healthy, clean heads. And while head lice are a nuisance, they don’t carry any diseases or cause any serious health problems. That being said, you still don’t want them spreading on your child’s head!

The most common symptom of head lice is itching on the areas where lice are present (often behind the ears or at the back of the neck), although it can take up to 4-6 weeks after lice get on the scalp before it starts to itch.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) provides instructions for how to check for head lice:

  • Seat your child in a brightly lit room.
  • Part the hair.
  • Look for crawling lice and for nits on your child's scalp a section at a time.
  • Live lice are hard to find. They avoid light and move quickly.
  • Nits will look like small white or yellow-brown specks and be firmly attached to the hair near the scalp. The easiest place to find them is at the hairline at the back of the neck or behind the ears. Nits can be confused with many other things such as dandruff, dirt particles, or hair spray droplets. The way to tell the difference is that nits are firmly attached to hair, while dandruff, dirt, or other particles are not.
  • Use a fine-tooth comb to help you search the scalp section by section.

If you suspect your child has head lice, call your pediatrician first before beginning any treatment.

Don’t bother with home remedies like mayonnaise, olive oil, margarine, butter, petroleum jelly, or other substances like gasoline. They won’t work — and some are harmful to kids.

The most effective way to treat head lice is with head lice medicine. Your doctor give you instructions and safety guidelines for the medicine. After each treatment, the comb-out method is often used.

Head lice live about 28 days. But the good news is, if they cannot feed, they only survive about 1-2 days or less. The eggs do not survive if they are farther than 4-6 mm of the scalp.

Also, head lice cannot jump, hop or fly. They are spread most commonly by prolonged, direct head-to-head contact.

The AAP offers steps parents can take to prevent and control the spread of head lice:

  • Avoid head-to-head (hair-to-hair) contact, whether at school, on a playground, or during sports activities.
  • Avoid sleepovers until 48 hours after treatment and no living lice visualized.
  • Tell your child not to share combs, brushes, hats, scarves, bandanas, hair bands, ribbons, barrettes, or towels — basically, anything that goes on kids' heads.
  • Disinfest combs and brushes by soaking them in hot water for 5-10 minutes.
  • Wash your child’s clothes, towels, hats, bed linens and other items that were used 2 days before starting head lice treatment. Use hot water and dry on high heat.
  • Seal items that cannot be washed in a plastic bag for 2 weeks.
  • Be sure other members of the household are examined and treated for head lice if needed.
  • Do not use pest sprays and fogs in the house, which can be harmful if they are inhaled or get into the skin, especially on young children.

Find a pediatrician.

Learn more about children’s services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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