What is your reaction when you are told your child has head lice? Hearing the word “lice” might give you the chills or perhaps even make you itch. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 6 million to 12 million infestations occur each year in the United States among children ages 3 to 11. To get head lice, your child must come into direct contact with the hair of someone who is infested.
It’s very common for school-age children to come into contact with head lice; however, it is not to be associated with the cleanliness or living conditions of the infested person.
Recently, Valley parents have become concerned about head lice in the schools. Various news channels have recently featured informational stories about head lice and even ‘super lice.’
Let’s learn more about the little critters in order to help prevent an infestation in the future.
What are head lice?
According to the CDC, head lice are insects whose only hosts are humans. They can be found on the head and in the eyebrows and eyelashes. The lice feed on blood several times daily and stay close to the scalp to maintain their body temperature. Lice infestations are spread most commonly by close person-to-person contact. Lice crawl; they cannot hop or fly. Head lice are not known to spread disease.
Who is at risk for getting head lice?
Lice are found worldwide among all age groups. According to the CDC, here within the United States, infestation with head lice is most common among children in day care, preschool and elementary school, and the household members of those infested children.
What do lice look like?
Head lice have three forms or life cycles: the egg (also known as a nit), the nymph and the adult.
The CDC describes the life cycle as follows:
Nits are eggs laid by the adult female head louse at the base of the hair shaft nearest the scalp. Nits are firmly attached to the hair shaft, are oval-shaped and very small (about the size of a knot in thread), and are hard to see. Nits often appear yellow or white, although live nits sometimes appear to be the same color as the hair of the infested person. Nits are often confused with dandruff, scabs or hairspray droplets. Head lice nits usually take about eight or nine days to hatch. Eggs that are likely to hatch are usually located no more than a quarter-inch from the base of the hair shaft. Nits located farther away than that may be already hatched, non-viable nits, or empty nits or casings. This is difficult to distinguish with the naked eye.
A nymph is an immature louse that hatches from the nit. A nymph looks like an adult head louse, but is smaller. To live, a nymph must feed on blood. Nymphs mature into adults about nine to 12 days after hatching from the nit.
The fully grown and developed adult louse is about the size of a sesame seed, has six legs, and is tan to grayish-white in color. Adult head lice may look darker in persons with dark hair than in persons with light hair. To survive, adult head lice must feed on blood. An adult head louse can live about 30 days on a person’s head but will die within one or two days if it falls off a person. Adult female head lice are usually larger than males and can lay about six eggs each day.
Where can I most commonly find head lice?
Head lice and nits are most commonly found on the scalp, usually around or behind the ears and near the neckline at the back of the head. They are less commonly found in eyelashes or eyebrows.
What are the signs of head lice infestation?
Your child might feel a tickling feeling, like something is moving in his/her hair.
Your child may experience itching or scratching, which is caused by an allergic reaction to the bites of the head lice.
Some children may experience irritability and difficulty sleeping, as head lice are most active in the dark.
You may see sores on your child’s head caused by scratching. The sores might become infected.
How did my child get head lice?
Head lice are most commonly spread through head-to-head contact with an already infested child. This can occur during playtime at school, at home and in other common places where children are most commonly found (sports activities, playground, slumber parties, camp).
How are head lice infestations diagnosed?
You can make your own diagnosis by finding a live nymph or adult louse on the scalp or hair of your child. A magnifying lens or a fine-toothed comb may also be helpful to find live lice, as they are very small and tend to move quickly. Be sure to check approximately a quarter-inch at the base of the hair shafts, where lice are also most commonly found.
If your child has been sent home with a note from the school nurse, follow proper instructions for correct treatment. If your child has not yet been diagnosed, see a health care provider, the local health department or other person trained to identify live head lice.
How is the infestation treated?
Treatment involves either over-the-counter medication or prescription medication. There are many different products available; be sure to follow all instructions on the box or ask a health provider about proper usage. Be sure to get everyone in your family checked, and wash all clothing and bedding used by the infested child to help prevent re-infestation.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends using over-the-counter medications containing 1 percent permethrin or pyrethrins as a first choice of treatment for active lice infestations.
According to the AAP, “While it is unlikely to prevent all cases of head lice, children should be taught not to share personal items such as combs, brushes, and hats. Regular observation by parents can also be an effective way to detect and quickly treat head lice infestations.”
For more information about head lice, visit www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/index.html or call your school nurse.