Head Lice in Children - Pediatrician In Idaho Falls

HEAD LICE IN CHILDREN

You just got the news every parent dreads: “Your child has head lice.” Now what? If a teacher, a daycare worker or the parent of one of your child’s friends has just given you this news, the first thing to do is not panic. While head lice can spread, they don’t carry disease, and they don’t mean that you or your child are in any way unclean.

WHAT ARE HEAD LICE?

Head lice are tiny, wingless parasitic insects that live on human hairs and feeds on blood from the scalp. Head lice (a single one is called a louse) are a very common problem, especially for children. Outbreaks occur in schools, daycare centers and other places that children are clustered together. Head lice are very contagious, annoying, and sometimes very hard to get rid of. Even though they are frustrating to deal with, head lice are not dangerous. They don’t spread any disease, but they do make a child’s scalp itchy and irritated and intense scratching can lead to localized infection. You do want to treat them promptly because they spread very easily from person to person.

Although head lice are tiny, they can be seen with the naked eye. An adult is about the size of a sesame seed. It is hard to find an adult louse as they are very fast and will avoid light. Head lice will live on a scalp for about 28 days, yet will die within a day if they are not on a scalp. However, they lay about 10 eggs a day and each egg hatches in 12 days. You can plainly see that they must be treated quickly.

When checking your child (or yourself) for head lice, the easiest thing to do is look for the lice eggs. These are called nits and they look like tiny yellow, tan or brown dots before they hatch. Lice lay the nits on the shafts of your hair and also they are laid close to the scalp where they can keep warm. You might mistake them for dandruff, but you cannot brush them away. They are stuck fast to the hair shaft and even shampoo will not wash them away. You also cannot brush or shake them off. After hatching, the shell of the egg stays attached to the hair shaft, and as the hair grows, you can easily see the shell and confirm the diagnosis.

WHO GETS HEAD LICE?

Anyone can get head lice. They are more prevalent in preschoolers, kindergarteners and grade school age children. It does not matter how clean you house, your hair, or your children are. It does not matter where families work, live or play. The main way head lice spread is from close head-to-head contact. Other ways head lice spreads is:

  • Contact with an already infested person (personal contact is common during play, school, sports activities and at school, home, slumber parties or camp)
  • Wearing infested clothing such as hats, scarves, coats, sports uniforms or hair ribbons
  • Using infested combs, brushes or towels
  • Lying on a bed, couch, pillow, carpet, or stuffed animal that has recently been in contact with a person with lice

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF HEAD LICE?

The most common symptom of head lice is itching. It can take up to four weeks after catching head lice that the itching actually starts. Most of the itching is at the back of the neck along the hairline and behind the ears. Unfortunately, the itching can continue for weeks even after the head lice have been eliminated. Other signs and symptoms of head lice are:

  • A tickling feeling of something moving in the hair
  • Sores on the head (usually caused by scratching)
  • Itching which is caused by the allergic reaction to the bites
  • Infected sores on the head because of the itching and scratching
  • Irritability

TREATMENT OF HEAD LICE IN CHILDREN

All persons with head lice should be treated. For effective elimination of head lice, the infested individual, family members that are also infested, and the home must all be treated. Over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medications are used to treat people of all ages with head lice. To rid your child, yourself and your family, follow these steps:

  • Remove all clothing
  • Apply lice medicine according to the label instructions. If your child has extra long hair, you may need a second application. Do not wash hair before treatment and do not wash hair for two days after treatment
  • Put on clean clothes after treatment
  • If some live lice are still found eight hours after treatment, but are moving slowly, do not retreat. Comb dead and remaining live lice out of the hair.
  • If no dead lice are found and lice seem as active as before treatment, the medicine may not be working. Call a healthcare professional for a different medication and follow instructions.
  • Very fine toothed combs (sometimes called “nit combs”) are beneficial in combing the nits off of the hair shafts.
  • Retreat in seven to ten days
  • Check all treated people for two to three weeks until all lice and nits are gone

PREVENTING REINFESTATION

Here are some simple ways to get rid of the lice and their eggs, and help prevent a lice reinfestation:

  • Wash all bed linens and clothing in very hot water and put them in the hot cycle of the dryer for at least 20 minutes
  • Dry clean anything that cannot be washed (like stuffed animals) or put them in airtight bags for at least 3 days
  • Vacuum carpets and upholstered furniture in your home and vacuum your car, then throw away the vacuum bag
  • Soak all hair-care items (combs, hair ties, barrettes, brushes and headbands) in rubbing alcohol or medicated shampoo for 1 hour.

Remember: Having head lice is not a sign of dirtiness 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) wash their hair or bathe. It also doesn’t matter how long or short a person’s hair is. Be sure to remind your child that although having lice can be embarrassing, anyone can get them. It is important for kids to understand they haven’t done anything wrong and that having lice does not make them dirty. Assure them that they will go away with treatment.


Featured Image Credit: By Gilles San Martin – originally posted to Flickr as Male human head louse, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11208622