As parents, we all dread the call from the school that our child has lice. The word “lice” invokes fear and uncontrollable itching. It happens! We hear that lice like clean hair, better than dirty hair. What things can you do to prevent lice? What steps should you take to treat a lice outbreak? These are a few questions I will answer. SO, PREPARE TO ITCH AS YOU READ!!
The head louse is a tiny, wingless parasitic insect that lives among human hairs and feeds on extremely small amounts of blood drawn from the scalp. Although they may sound gross, lice (the plural of louse) are a very common problem, especially for kids ages 3 years to 12 years (girls more often than boys).
Lice aren’t dangerous and they don’t spread disease, but they are contagious and can just be downright annoying. Their bites may cause a child’s scalp to become itchy and inflamed, and persistent scratching may lead to skin irritation and even infection.
It’s wise to treat head lice quickly once the diagnosis is made because they can spread easily from person to person.
What Does Lice Look Like?
When checking for lice, you must check for both live lice and their nits (which is their eggs). Even if you do not have active lice, if you have nits – it won’t be long until they hatch. So you must know what each look like.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Lice?
Though very small, lice can be seen by the naked eye. What you or your doctor might see by thoroughly examining your child’s head:
Lice eggs (called nits). These look like tiny yellow, tan, or brown dots before they hatch. Lice lay nits on hair shafts close to the scalp, where the temperature is perfect for keeping warm until they hatch. Nits look sort of like dandruff, only they can’t be removed by brushing or shaking them off.
Unless the infestation is heavy, it’s more common to see nits in a child’s hair than it is to see live lice crawling on the scalp. Lice eggs hatch within 1 to 2 weeks after they’re laid. After hatching, the remaining shell looks white or clear and continues to be firmly attached to the hair shaft. This is the stage when it’s easiest to spot them, as the hair is growing longer and the egg shell is moving further away from the scalp.
Adult lice and nymphs (baby lice). The adult louse is no bigger than a sesame seed and is grayish-white or tan. 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 up to 2 days off the scalp.
Scratching. With lice bites come itching and scratching. This is actually due to a reaction to the saliva of lice. However, the itching may not always start right away — that depends on how sensitive your child’s skin is to the lice. It can sometimes take weeks for kids with lice to start scratching. They may complain, though, of things moving around on or tickling their heads.
Small, red bumps or sores from scratching. For some kids, the irritation is mild; for others, a more bothersome rash may develop. Excessive scratching can lead to a bacterial infection (the skin would become red and tender and may have crusting and oozing along with swollen lymph glands). If your doctor thinks this is the case, he or she may treat the infection with an oral antibiotic.
How Do I Check For Lice?
You may be able to see the lice or nits by parting your child’s hair into small sections and checking for lice and nits with a fine-tooth comb on the scalp, behind the ears, and around the nape of the neck (it’s rare for them to be found on eyelashes or eyebrows).
A magnifying glass and bright light may help. But it can be tough to find a nymph or adult louse— often, there aren’t many of them and they’re able to move fast.
How Do I Treat Lice?
Treatment of the individual and the infected family members
Over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medications are used to treat the affected people and their families. Follow these treatment steps:
- Remove all clothing
- Apply lice medicine, also called pediculicide, according to the label instructions. If your child has extra-long hair, you may need to use a second bottle. WARNING: Do not use a cream rinse or combination shampoo/conditioner before using lice medicine. Do not re-wash hair for one to two days after treatment
- Have the infested person put on clean clothing after treatment
- If some live lice are still found eight to 12 hours after treatment but are moving more slowly than before, do not retreat. Comb dead and remaining live lice out of the hair. The medicine sometimes takes longer to kill the lice
- If, eight to 12 hours after treatment, no dead lice are found and lice seem as active as before, the medicine may not be working. See your health-care provider for a different medication and follow their treatment instructions
- Nit (head lice egg) combs, often found in lice medicine packages should be used to remove nits and lice from the hair shaft. Many flea combs made for cats and dogs are also effective
- After the initial treatment, check, comb, and remove nits and lice from hair every two to three days
- Re-treat in seven to 10 days
- Check all treated people for two to three weeks until you are sure all lice and nits are gone.
Treating the house:
Treating the whole house is a laborious but important task. Follow these steps:
- Machine wash all washable clothing and bed linens that the infested person touched during the two days before treatment (to kill the lice and nits). Use the hot water cycle (130 degrees F; 55 degrees C) to wash clothes. Dry laundry using the hot cycle for at least 20 minutes
- Dry clean clothing that is not washable (coats, hats, scarves, etc.), or store all clothing, stuffed animals, comforters, etc., that cannot be washed or dry cleaned into a plastic bag and seal it for two weeks
- Soak combs and brushes for one hour in rubbing alcohol, Lysol, or wash with soap and hot (130 degrees F; 55 degrees C) water and then place in bag and leave in freezer for two days
- Vacuum the floor and furniture. Do not use fumigant sprays. (They can be toxic if inhaled.)
Removing By Hand
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.
To remove lice and nits by hand, use a fine-tooth comb on your child’s wet, conditioned hair every 3 to 4 days for 2 weeks after the last live louse was seen. Wetting the hair beforehand is recommended because it temporarily immobilizes the lice and the conditioner makes it easier to get a comb through the hair.
Wet combing is also an alternative to pesticide treatments in older kids. Though petroleum jelly, mayonnaise, or olive oil is sometimes used in an attempt to suffocate head lice, these treatments have not been proven to be effective.
In your efforts to get rid of the bugs, there are some things you shouldn’t do. Some don’ts of head lice treatment include:
- Don’t use a hair dryer on your child’s hair after applying any of the currently available scalp treatments because some contain flammable ingredients.
- Don’t use a cream rinse or shampoo/conditioner combination before applying lice medication.
- Don’t wash your child’s hair for 1 to 2 days after using a medicated treatment.
- Don’t use sprays or hire a pest control company to try to get rid of the lice, as they can be harmful.
- Don’t use the same medication more than three times on one person. If it doesn’t seem to be working, your doctor may recommend another medication.
- Don’t use more than one head lice medication at a time.
How Can I Prevent Lice?
Having head lice is not a sign of uncleanliness or poor hygiene. 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 — clean their hair or bathe.
However, you can help to prevent kids from getting lice — or from becoming reinfested with lice — by taking the following precautions:
- Tell kids to try to avoid head-to-head contact at school (in gym, on the playground, or during sports) and while playing at home with other children.
- 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 may have lice or not.
- Tell kids not to lie on bedding, pillows, and carpets that have recently been used by someone with lice.
- Every 3 or 4 days, examine members of your household who have had close contact with a person who has lice. Then, treat those who are found to have lice or nits close to the scalp.
As many parents know firsthand, lice infestation can be a persistent nuisance, especially in group settings. If your child still has lice and you’ve followed every recommendation, it could be because:
- some nits were left behind
- your child is still being exposed to someone with lice
- the treatment you’re using isn’t effective
There’s no doubt that they can be hard bugs to get rid of. If your child still has lice 2 weeks after you started treatment or if your child’s scalp looks infected, call your doctor.
No matter how long the problem lasts, be sure to emphasize to 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 aggravating as getting rid of the annoying insects can be, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Be patient and follow the treatments and prevention tips as directed by your doctor for keeping the bugs at bay, and you’ll be well on your way to keeping your family lice-free.