Kids and Head Lice: What You Should Know

No parent wants to get a call from school that their child has head lice, and no parent wants to discover live bugs in their child’s hair at home. However, head lice infestations do happen, and if your child has lice, it’s important to know all the facts and act promptly to get rid of the problem and keep it from spreading.

What Is Head Lice?

Lice are insects that live in the hair and on the scalp of humans. They are wingless and parasitic, but they are not known to spread disease. Lice are not a sign of poor hygiene. Although they do have a negative stigma attached to them, lice do not care about the cleanliness of a person’s hair or body, as they simply need blood to survive and will not discriminate in finding a food source. Lice eggs, or nits, are attached to the hair shafts very close to the scalp. They are oval and very difficult to remove from the hair. Nymphs are the stage lice go through between being an egg and an adult, and they are a greyish-white color. Adult lice are more of a tan color and if present, these can be seen moving throughout the hair and across the scalp.

Lice are most commonly found on children between the ages of 3 and 11, and they spread primarily by direct contact. Head lice cannot hop or fly. This means that if your child has lice, he or she was close enough to someone else’s head for the lice to transfer from the other person’s hair to theirs. Lice can live on inanimate objects, but only for less than a day, so it’s not as likely that head lice were picked up in this way. However, if your child has lice, be sure to stop her from sharing things that touch her head, such as hats, brushes, combs, towels, and so on. Head lice is most common in girls, due to their longer hair, and in Caucasian individuals, due to the smooth texture of their hair strands. That being said, no one is exempt from the possibility of getting head lice, adults included, so it’s best to know what the symptoms of a head lice infestation are, what to look for, and how to treat head lice.

Symptoms of Head Lice & What to Look For

The most common symptom of head lice is itching. Even young children can feel the lice moving in their hair, and while they may not notice enough irritation to say something, they will respond by scratching their heads regularly. Lice may also bite the scalp, leaving more irritation and even a minor allergic reaction to the bites, which can lead to more itching or even sores on the head. Head lice are the most active in the dark, so individuals with head lice may feel like something is crawling in their hair especially at night time.

If you suspect your child has head lice or if you’ve been told that another child who is in close contact with your own has lice, it’s best to check them immediately so that you can take care of the problem if there is one. You can take your child to a pediatrician or lice removal specialist to have them checked, or you can do a thorough examination at home. It can be hard to find adult lice or nymphs as they move very quickly and avoid light, but you can use a fine-tooth comb and a magnifying glass to look closely for lice. Even if you don’t see any lice moving around on the head, the presence of nits close to the scalp strongly suggests a lice infestation. When nits are within ¼ inch from the scalp, they are likely “live” nits that will eventually hatch into active lice. If they are father than ¼ inch from the scalp, they may be dead nits, indicating a lice infestation that is no longer active and doesn’t need treatment. If you are uncertain about the presence of nits, nymphs, or adult lice, it is best to err on the side of caution and have your child’s head looked at by a professional who is trained in identifying lice.

How to Treat Head Lice

Before beginning head lice treatment, ensure your child has a confirmed case of a head lice infestation. It is suggested that upon a confirmed diagnosis, you also check other members of the child’s family and let your child’s school or daycare know as well. Depending on their policies, your child may be required to stay home for a period of time after an infestation is discovered.

When treating head lice, there are a couple of different ways you can go about it. You can purchase an over the counter lice treatment, which is most commonly a shampoo, cream rinse, or lotion that is applied to the hair to kill the bugs. Be sure to check the ingredient list to ensure your child doesn’t have allergies to anything in the solution, and also check the age recommendations. Some lice treatments are okay for infants and older children, while some are only safe for pre-school aged children and older kids. If an over the counter treatment doesn’t work, you may need to ask your doctor for a prescription-strength head lice treatment. These are stronger and more effective and will work even on many treatment-resistant lice.  Some specialty lice clinics or health clinics may have specific treatments that are stronger than over the counter treatments but far more effective. They will also be applied by professionals who know the most effective ways to treat and remove lice, leading to a more successful eradication of the infestation.

Another option for head lice treatment is to manually remove the lice from the head without using a specialized shampoo or cream rinse. This can be tedious and will take far more time than an over the counter treatment, but if you don’t wish you use chemical-based products on your child’s head, this is an alternative. It involves wetting and conditioning your child’s hair and then combing it out very thoroughly with a fine-tooth comb. This should be done every 3-4 days for 3 weeks to ensure all nits, nymphs, and adult lice are removed from the hair.

No matter what type of treatment you choose for your child’s head, you also need to thoroughly wash anything that may have touched their head during the infestation, ideally in very hot water. This includes pillowcases, blankets, sheets, towels, hats, scarves, jackets, stuffed animals, and so on. Vacuum any carpets or upholstery that may have come into contact with the lice. Disinfect combs, brushes, headbands, and other hair accessories, and be sure to check the rest of the family to prevent recurring infestations. Until you are certain the lice are gone, it is also best to have your child wear her hair in a bun, braid, or ponytail to minimize the likelihood of her spreading the lice to someone else. Check anyone who has come into contact with the person who had lice every few days for a little while to ensure no nits appear, and if they do, treat for head lice immediately.

Visit NCHS for Head Lice Treatment

If you suspect that your child has head lice or if you have confirmed the lice infestation but haven’t been able to get rid of it, bring your child in to an NCHS clinic today. Our pediatricians can examine your child’s head to confirm or deny a head lice infestation, and they can offer treatment guidelines to get rid of the lice for good.