With kids back in school, it’s no secret that they are exposed to a number of germs and contagious conditions they wouldn’t be otherwise. One of the most common is lice—with as many as 12 million children between the ages of 3 and 11 contracting it every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Unfortunately, head lice are as difficult to get rid of as they are easy to catch. So how do you keep your child from getting lice in the first place? Here, we share everything that you need to know.
What are Lice?
The small parasitic insects known as lice are notorious for latching onto the head, eyebrows and eyelashes of children and adults alike. Although they can’t fly or jump, these pesky insects crawl. A head louse will remain close to the scalp, feeding on human blood several times each day.
You may initially notice lice on your child’s head in the form of eggs (or nits), baby lice or adult lice. Lice eggs are usually the easiest to spot. They appear on the scalp in tiny yellow, tan or brown specks that can be confused with dandruff.
Once the lice eggs have hatched, it takes one to two weeks for the baby lice to turn into adults.
How are Lice Spread?
Because preschool- and elementary-age children are in constant contact with each other, they are more likely to catch head lice than adults. Lice can easily spread from child to child by the sharing of clothes or other belongings such as hats and brushes.
If your child has head lice, you may notice:
- Scratching the scalp constantly
- Complaining that it feels like something is crawling on the scalp
- Developing head sores from scratching
- Suffering from irritability and difficulty sleeping
How Do You Treat Head Lice?
If you think that one of your children has contracted head lice, it’s important that you see a doctor as soon as possible. He or she will confirm the diagnosis and recommend a medicated shampoo, cream rinse or lotion.
Once the head lice have died, you will use a fine-toothed comb (nit comb) to pick out each louse individually (called wet-combing). A second medicated treatment is usually needed to kill recently hatched eggs. Lice on children under the age of 2 months are removed by hand without any medication.
After your child has been treated, it’s normal for the scalp to still itch. If topical treatments aren’t offering relief, your doctor can prescribe an oral medication.
You may have heard about home remedies that supposedly kill the lice by smothering them, such as petroleum jelly, olive oil, mayonnaise or essential oils. There is little clinical evidence that these remedies work, and they can actually make symptoms worse.
Be sure to contact your child’s school immediately. Every school’s policy differs. Some recommend that the child goes to school as usual and receives treatment at home.
How Can You Prevent Head Lice?
Make sure that your children know not to share their belongings, especially anything that touches their head, like hats, scarves, coats and hair bows. If someone with lice has used a piece of furniture, like a bed or couch, avoid lying down on it until you’re certain it’s lice-free.
If you think one of your children has been exposed to lice, check the scalp at least every three to four days.
If someone in your family gets lice, there are several things that you can do to prevent it from spreading.
- Immediately gather clothing and bed linens that have been recently used and wash them in hot water, then dry using the hottest settings possible to kill any remaining lice.
- Dry clean any items that can’t be washed, like a stuffed animal, then store them in an airtight bag for at least two weeks.
- Thoroughly vacuum upholstered furniture and carpets in your home and cars. When you’re finished, be sure to toss the vacuum cleaner bag or clean the canister.
- Sanitize items used on your child’s hair—hair ties, headbands, combs, and brushes—by soaking in hot water at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit for five to 10 minutes.
How Are Head Lice Diagnosed?
If someone in your family has head lice, consider visiting your local CareNow® to begin treatment immediately.
To properly diagnose head lice, a doctor will search for nits (baby lice) in your child’s hair using a Wood’s light—a tool that makes the lice look bluish in color so they’re more easily noticeable.
It’s important to note that just because a nit is found in your child’s hair, it does not mean that there is an active infestation. It’s possible for dead or empty nits to be found as well.
The doctor will most likely place the nits under a microscope to see whether they’re alive. If no living nits are found, it’s possible that the dead nits were from a previous infestation.
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Disclaimer: Patients’ health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you.