Lice: What to know and what to do

Tips to safely remove lice from your life.

Lice compared to penny size
Photo by CDC

It is easy to panic if your child gets lice. It’s hard to feel calm about the idea of little bugs crawling around on your child’s (or your) scalp. Lice, while definitely creepy and crawly, are not dangerous and do not spread disease. The only major issue they cause is itching. So, what should a parent do to get rid of lice quickly? Michigan State University Extension offers the following tips to thoroughly eliminate lice.

Know your lice facts

Lice are tiny, wingless parasites that feed on blood. They are found on your scalp and are most easily seen at the nape of the neck and behind the ears. Head lice are common among children ages 3 to 11. They can live on all types of hair—straight, curly, dyed or natural. They are most frequently found on girls and are more prevalent among Caucasian children. Head lice do not jump, they do not live on pets and poor personal hygiene does not make someone more likely to have them.

Lice are most frequently spread by head to head contact. Less commonly, they can be spread through shared items that touch the head such has hats, combs, brushes or hair accessories. Lice do not live for more than a day off of the human body.

Signs and symptoms

Although they’re very small, lice can be seen with the naked eye. Here is what to look for:

  • People with head lice often complain of itchy, scratchy heads. This is a reaction to the saliva of the lice. Some people may feel things moving around in their hair as well. Some children may get small, red bumps from itching and scratching, especially behind their ears and around the nape of their neck.
  • Nits, or lice eggs, are often what is visible in a lice infestation instead of louse. The nits are tiny yellow, brown or tan dots. They cling to the hair shaft close to the scalp where they are warm until they hatch. They look like dandruff but can’t be easily brushed off. See a picture of nits in hair from the Mayo Clinic.
  • Adult lice and nymphs (baby lice). An adult louse is about the size of a sesame seed and is grayish white or tan. Nymphs are smaller and become an adult louse one to two weeks after they hatch.

Treatment and de-lousing

Once your child is diagnosed, it’s time to treat. There are several over-the-counter treatment options. The most commonly used medications contain pyrethins, which are made from the chrysanthemum flower. These should not be used if you or your child are allergic to chrysanthemums, mums or ragweed. Some lice have developed resistance to the commonly used medications. Learn more about medication options from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Keep these tips in mind when using medication to treat for lice:

  • Follow package directions. Creams and shampoos are typically applied directly to the hair, either dry or freshly washed (not conditioned). Apply when you or your child are full dressed and rinse into the sink or bathtub. Do not rinse off while bathing. Limit how much of the medication touches the skin.
  • After treatment, use a nit comb. Once the medication is applied and rinsed, change you or your child into clean clothes and carefully comb the hair in small sections utilizing a nit comb. Specially designed nit combs can be purchased and may be more effective. Many flea combs will also work. Separate the hair into small sections and comb the hair shaft from root to tip.
  • Wash clothing, bedding and towels. Wash items worn in the last two days by the infected person such as hats, coats, pillowcases, towels and bedding. Lice and eggs do not live long off a person and are easily killed by five minutes or greater in hot water or hot air cycles greater than 103 degrees; typically, the hot water/high temperature dry cycles are sufficient. Soak combs and brushes in hot water. Items that cannot be washed can be sealed in a plastic bag for two weeks.
  • Continue to check and nit comb. Repeat nit combing every two to three days to check for remaining lice and nits.
  • Many medications require retreatment seven to nine days after initial treatment. This is meant to kill newly hatched lice before they mature and lay eggs.

Avoid re-infestation

Continue to check the infected person’s hair every two to three days for two to three weeks. Reapply a second dose of the treatment if the package indicates it is required. This is because many medications only kill the live lice and not the eggs. Failure to retreat can cause a second round of lice to hatch. If you treated correctly and they are not going away, you may have lice that are resistant to the over-the-counter medications. These so-called “super lice” may require prescription medications. Follow up with your doctor for additional advice should over-the-counter treatments fail to be successful.

There is no need to use lice sprays or fumigate your home. Lice do not live long off the human body. Washing bedding, clothing and towels should be sufficient to kill any lice that have fallen off of the head. You can vacuum the infected person’s bed and common seating areas, but intense cleaning and household treatments are not necessary. Animals cannot get lice or spread lice. There is no additional need to treat your pets.

While the discovery of lice on you or your children can be alarming, there is no need to panic. They can typically be treated inexpensively and relatively quickly. With some time and focus, you’ll be back to enjoying a lice-free home again in short order.

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