What are head lice?Head lice (pediculosis capitis) are the second most contagious disease among school-aged children, surpassed only by the common cold. It is caused by an infestation of parasitic insects, called lice, which accumulate on the scalp. Between six and twelve million people in the United States get head lice every year. They are spread easily by close contact or sharing belongings. Lice are not an indication of unclean living conditions or poor personal hygiene.
The number one symptom of head lice is itching. These insects feed on blood, covering the scalp in bites. Because humans are allergic to the saliva of lice, these bites itch intensely.
Diagnosing head liceYou probably will not need a doctor to tell you if your child has lice; they are visible with the naked eye. If you think your child may have lice, part his or her hair to check. Look closely at the child’s hair, especially near the roots, and the scalp. What are you looking for? Head lice go through three distinctive stages:
- Nits – Lice eggs may appear brown, yellow, or tan.
- Nymphs – The larva phase lasts about one or two weeks.
- Adult – Lice are tiny, dark colored insects that can be seen crawling around on the scalp. They are approximately the size of sesame seeds.
Treating head liceEradicating head lice takes some time and diligence. You will need to use a fine comb to remove nits, which cling to the hair shafts. Many over the counter products containing permethrin or pyrethrin are available. Either of these active ingredients will kill the adult lice, but it is important to follow package directions exactly. Several applications are needed, usually about a week apart.
For infants and very young children, it may be advisable to choose a gentler, more natural way of killing lice. Olive oil or mayonnaise works well, because they suffocate the lice. Then you can clean the baby’s hair with his or her normal shampoo, and comb out the nits.
Preventing the spread of liceThe reason lice are so challenging to treat is because they are so contagious. Each person in the home should be checked regularly and treated as necessary. Although lice feed on blood, they are capable of surviving for two days on furniture, carpeting, clothing, and other household items. Therefore, you need to treat the home and personal belongings as well as the person affected.
- Wash and heat dry all bedding, linens, and clothing.
- Anything that cannot be laundered in a washing machine should be dry cleaned.
- Thoroughly vacuum carpets, rugs, upholstery, and other fabrics that cannot be washed.
- Seal stuffed animals and similar items in an airtight plastic bag, and store for at least two weeks.
- Discard or sterilize brushes, combs, and hair accessories.