Back to school shock and “Ewww!” – Coping with a case of head lice

hair_searchIf you’re a parent with a new kindergartener, pre-schooler or child care pupil this fall, you may not be ready for the shock and “Ewww!” that comes with the first time you receive a letter from the school or day care advising you that a child in your kid’s class has head lice. Or worse, a call from the school nurse advising that your child is being sent home due to a case of head lice. After you recover from the mortification, it’s important to remember head lice are not a health risk.

That’s surprising – you mean head lice do not spread diseases?

Head lice are not known to spread disease. They’re an annoyance because they may cause itching and loss of sleep. Sometimes the itching can lead to excessive scratching that can increase the chance of a secondary skin infection, but that’s really about it.

So who is most at risk for getting head lice?

They are found world-wide, but in the U.S., they’re most common among preschool age children attending day care, children in elementary schools, and household members of infested children. Reliable data are not available for the number of people who get head lice, but an estimated 6-to-12 million infestations happen each year in children ages 3-11. And I want to stress this: Getting head lice is not related to how clean a person or their home is. Everyone is vulnerable.

We always hear not to share combs or hats. Is that still good advice?

Yes! Head lice move by crawling; they cannot hop or fly, so they’re usually spread by direct contact, or by hitching a ride on combs, hats, or other items that come into contact with hair. If you come into head-to-head contact with someone who has head lice, your risk is pretty high, regardless of how clean you are. Getting lice from clothing or other personal items is uncommon, but not unheard of, so, yes, it’s still a good idea to remind your children not share combs and hats. And don’t blame the dog or the cat – pets don’t play a role in transmitting head lice.

What are the signs or symptoms of an infestation?
People usually have a tickling feeling, like something is moving in their hair. There’s also itching and possible sores caused by scratching. And there may be some irritability and difficulty sleeping because head lice are most active in the dark.

Where are they most commonly found?

They’re found almost exclusively on the scalp, and mostly around and behind the ears and near the neckline at the back of the head. Eggs or nits are firmly attached to the hair shaft and can be difficult to remove even after the nymphs hatch. Adults are about the size of a sesame seed and can be white or tan or brown.

How is an infestation treated?

Once someone in your household is diagnosed with head lice, everyone should be checked. And then everyone who has head lice should be treated at the same time using either over the counter or prescription medication; retreatment may be needed so read the medication instructions carefully! Your healthcare provider can help you determine what’s best. As for your home, you don’t need to spend a lot of time or money to make sure it’s lice-free. Your biggest concern is getting rid of any eggs. The adults don’t survive very long if they fall off a person and can’t feed. If you wash clothing items that came into contact with an infested person in hot water and dry them using hot air cycles, that should kill any eggs or lice that haven’t died already.

A Closer Look at Your Health airs weekly on Tuesday mornings at 6:50 a.m. on KBOI Newsradio 670 AM in Boise; this is a transcript of the Sept. 4, 2018 program.


Head lice FAQs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Head lice treatment FAQs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Tips on household cleaning to prevent head lice transmission

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