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Prevent the Itch–What to Know About Head Lice

September 03, 2020

For those attending in-person class this fall, additional space between students may help prevent another occurrence often seen in classrooms: lice. The thought of lice might give you the creepy crawlies, and with good reason. When these tiny mites infect the scalp and skin, they trigger intense itching. Head lice are the most common form of lice affecting about 6 to 12 million kids every year, but adults can also get them. While they are extremely contagious, annoying and often an uncomfortable problem, lice are relatively harmless and can be easily treated. 

Identifying Lice

Lice are parasites that feed on human blood and can be found on your head, body or pubic area. Head lice usually stay close to the scalp and behind the ears. Female lice can lay up to 10 eggs, or nits, per day. Nits are oval-shaped eggs about half the size of a pinhead that firmly attach to hairs near the scalp. Nits usually hatch in 8 to 9 days, leaving behind clear shells, which remain stuck to the hair shaft.

A nymph is a baby louse, singular for lice. They begin to appear in your hair, on your skin, and on anything your head has touched. Nymphs, and adult lice, avoid light and move by crawling, because they cannot jump or fly. 

Adult lice are about the size of a sesame seed. Adult lice have six legs with claws at the end that allow them to latch tightly to your hair. 

Symptoms

Often there are no immediate signs of head lice, which can make it difficult to treat. Head lice are most active at night. Itching is the first and most common symptom but may not appear for weeks after contracting lice. The itching is caused by an allergic reaction to the bug bites which can cause sores or raw skin on the scalp. These sores can become infected, so it is important to treat the lice and eliminate the itching as soon as possible. If the skin becomes red, swollen or painful, or lymph nodes in the neck become tender, contact a doctor as these can be signs of infection. 

Prevention 

Head lice spread through head-to-head contact or sharing of items worn on or around the head. It’s not always possible to keep these pests away but there are a few simple steps to reduce your risk. 

  • Avoid sharing hats, hair accessories, helmets, combs, brushes and headphones 
  • Avoid head-to-head contact
  • Avoid storing personal belongings in shared areas such as closets, lockers, drawers and clothes hooks, especially in public places
  • Wash clothes and bedding regularly

Treatment

It is important to seek treatment since lice will not go away on its own. Lice treatments, called pediculicides, are available over the counter or with a prescription. They include shampoos, lotions and cream rinses. Use a fine-tooth comb or the lice comb that came with the product to comb out all nits. The most common side effect of lice treatments is skin irritation. If pregnant or breastfeeding, ask your doctor to recommend a product that’s safe to use.

All FDA-approved over-the-counter remedies contain pyrethrum, naturally occurring extracts from the chrysanthemum flower, or permethrin, a synthetic ingredient similar to pyrethrum. There are home remedies that use ingredients such as mayonnaise and vinegar, but these have not been scientifically proven. 

Lice cannot survive for long off the human body, but it is recommended all clothing worn or used within 48 hours prior to treatment be washed in hot water and dried on high heat. This includes bedding and stuffed animals. Seal items that cannot be washed in a plastic bag for 2 weeks. Vacuum rugs, furniture and floors to remove hairs that may have active lice eggs attached.

A physician can provide more information on preventing and treating lice. NEED A PROVIDER? FIND ONE HERE.