What to know about lice

By Jennifer Haggar, MD Apr 07, 2017

Lice. As a parent, the word alone can make your head itch. The dreaded note from school or glimpse of a bug in your child’s hair can send you screaming to the pharmacy. But before you put on your HAZMAT suit, lets “brush” up on the topic of lice.

Head lice cause a common, generally harmless infestation of tan to gray bugs about the size of a sesame seed. They lay eggs, called nits, that firmly attach to the hair near the scalp. Though stigmatized, lice do not carry disease and are not a sign of poor hygiene.

Lice can’t jump, don’t infest pets and can’t live off of the scalp for more than one day. Passed by direct head-to-head contact, lice can be prevented by educating your children to avoid sharing combs, hats and headgear.

A diagnosis of lice does not require special testing but is made through seeing the eggs, nymphs or adult lice in the hair. Parents can often diagnose just by looking at home. Lice tend to cluster around the nape of the neck and around the ears. Distinguishing nits and lice for other debris and dandruff is important. Debris and dandruff can easily be brushed off; lice cannot.

If your child has lice, start treatment with over-the-counter medications. Discuss the best type with the pharmacist or your child’s physician, as there are several options available. Though popular, non-chemical remedies for lice, such as tea tree oil, mayonnaise and others, have high rates of failure. Using pediculicides — chemicals that treat lice — are the effective option.

After treatment it is important to remove all nits from the hair. Often, this is completed with a special comb. This step, though time consuming, is one of the most important steps. Not removing nits can result in infestations when they hatch. Wash all bedding and clean hair care items after treating your child’s hair and check all family members for lice and treat if found.

After treatment, continue to check your child (and family) daily. Re-treat if you note new lice or nits. Whether you notice continued lice or not, treatment with over-the-counter pediculicides should be repeated nine days after the first application to help with resistance and achieve cure. If after multiple treatments live lice or nits are still found, contact your child’s physician. Sometimes prescription treatment is necessary.

Now that you’ve stopped scratching your head trying to understand lice, take a big breath and kindly show your unwanted houseguests the exit. With a little persistence you’ll be in the clear soon.