Stop Your Itching: A Guide to Treating Head Lice
Second only to the common cold amongst communicable diseases, just about everyone can agree that having head lice is a pretty lousy experience. The singular term for lice is a louse, and there are three different types that live on the human body (body, pubic, and head). Remarkably, they each like to stick to their preferred body areas, and are not the same parasite, nor are the conditions for their infestations the same.
What is Head Lice?
Pediculus humanus capitis, the parasites commonly known as head lice, live (you guessed it) on your head. With annual infestations estimated at between six and twelve million cases, it’s no wonder that it’s one of the most common childhood ailments for pre-school and elementary-aged school children. Lice are an annoying and often times itchy ordeal, but let’s examine some facts and misconceptions that surround the phenomenon that is a lice infestation.
Head lice live on your head. This may seem like a no-brainer, but head lice, while resilient, don’t live very long outside of their normal habitat (your hair).
Lice need human blood to live. That means that you can’t give your pet lice, nor can you get it from them. Lice die in about two and a half days without consuming human blood.
Lice can only crawl. They can’t jump, hop, fly, or swim. They’re helpless on smooth surfaces, so disinfecting countertops for lice isn’t necessary.
Lice prefer clean heads. Despite popular belief, head lice aren’t caused by poor personal hygiene. In fact, head lice can infest even the cleanest of households! A louse’s only concern is for its own survival, so any head will do.
Lice are spread by direct contact with another person’s hair. While it’s not recommended that you share items like hats, ribbons, hair ties, or pillows with an individual with lice, these interactions transmit roughly less than 2% of cases. It’s more common that a hug will allow lice to find a new host than using their hair-tie or scarf.
How do I know if my child has lice?
Sometimes determining whether or not your child has lice can be tricky. The most obvious symptom is excessive head-scratching, however, some children may not start scratching right away. The saliva of the lice is the component that causes the allergic reaction that prompts the itchy sensation, and some kids are more sensitive to it than others. Furthermore, sores or a rash may develop as a result of the bites or scratching. Even if itching doesn’t start right away, your child may complain about a tickling sensation on their head caused by the movement of the lice.
If you’re concerned that your child may have contracted lice, look for nits (lice eggs) on the scalp, behind the ears, and around the nape of the neck. Identifying nits can be tricky. They are firmly attached to the hair, but their yellow/white coloration sometimes makes it hard to distinguish them from dandruff or other hair products. Additionally, they take a week to hatch and adult lice and nymphs (young lice) are often difficult to spot. If you’re not sure, contact your pediatrician or even a school nurse for help determining whether your child has lice.
How to Prevent Lice
The best way to prevent pediculosis (a head lice infestation) is to limit head contact with an infected person. In the past, schools have had a “no-nit” policy that suggested children with lice remain home while being treated. However, in recent years this policy has been put to rest and doctors suggest simply following good practices and common sense when it comes to keeping your household lice-free.
If you know your child has contracted lice, here are some tips to keep it from spreading to friends and family:
- Remove infected clothing and apply a lice-killing treatment according to the label instructions.
- Use a lice comb (often included with medications and OTC treatments). This can be a tedious process, but it’s important to get rid of as many lice and nits as possible. After initial treatment, be sure to use the comb every few days to remove nits and dead lice.
- Either discard or soak (in very hot water) hair-cair items like combs, brushes, hair ties, headbands, barrettes, or scrunchies.
- Check other family members for nits or signs of lice, and tell your children not to share clothing or hair-care products with their siblings or friends.
- Wash (in hot water) soft items like bed linens, hats, stuffed animals, and clothing you know have been worn in the days leading up to symptoms.
- Dry clean items that can’t be washed in your washing machine.
- Vacuum carpets, sofas, and beds as an extra precaution.
It should be noted that there is no need to treat family members that don’t have lice. Lice are very resilient parasites and pre-treatments won’t prevent them from spreading.
When should you ask for a lice prescription?
If your child is below the age of 2, or if you’ve followed all of the above advice and the lice seem just as active as ever, it’s time to seek out your pediatrician for help. Doctors can prescribe a variety of treatments that can help rid you and your household of lice. Common medications include:
- Ovide - A special insecticide that is only available as a prescription.
- Ulesfia - A product applied to dry hair to coat the scalp and hair.
- Natroba - This is derived from soil bacteria that kills both live lice as well as nits. However, results may vary, and a prescription can be costly.
- AirAllé® - This is a newer treatment that involves specialized equipment that kills lice by dehydrating them as well as their eggs without the use of pesticides.
Best OTC Lice Remedies
If you’re ready to take on lice at home, here are a few over-the-counter remedies that may help.
Let Us Help
This should go without saying, but it’s important to stick to these or other non-toxic methods for ridding your household of lice. Avoid using dangerous pesticides or other chemicals that could put your family at risk.
With a plethora of choices on the market, we know that treating head lice can be a frustrating experience, but we’re here to help! If you need advice or assistance picking out which treatment is right for your family call or make an appointment with a Pediatrics East pediatrician today!