Dealing With Head Lice

SUNDAY, Feb. 5 (HealthDay News) — Although there is a stigma associated with having head lice, infestations with these small insects are common and nothing to be ashamed of, according to Dr. Hannah Chow-Johnson, a pediatrician at Loyola University Health System.

Chow-Johnson knows from firsthand experience. Her own kids came home with lice one day.

“There is no shame in having lice. In fact, they are attracted to clean, shiny hair so the assumption that only unclean people have lice is false,” said Chow-Johnson, also an assistant professor of pediatrics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, in a university news release. “I had treated kids with lice in clinic, but it wasn’t until my own kids brought those scratchy, nasty bugs into our house that I truly understood their impact.”

The size of a grain of rice, lice lay small whitish or brownish eggs called nits that stick to hair shafts about an inch or two from the scalp. Although they can’t jump or fly, lice can be spread from person to person through close contact, such as hugging or sleeping in the same bed. They can also be spread when people with an infestation share their hats, clothes or hairbrushes.

There are ways parents can prevent a lice infestation, Chow-Johnson advised. “Try checking your child’s hair once a week. It’s inconvenient but it’s far easier to deal with lice early on than after the bugs have been there for a month.” She recommended that parents take the following steps when checking for lice:

  • Sit children down by a sink filled with warm water and comb their hair into sections using a fine-tooth comb.
  • Spray water or nit spray on a small section of hair and pull the comb straight through to the ends.
  • Rinse the comb and wipe it off with a towel.
  • Repeat this process until all the hair on the child’s head has been checked.

“It’s not enough to do a quick visual by parting your child’s hair. Lice move very quickly and evade your best efforts,” Chow-Johnson said.

She pointed out that lice do not transmit disease, but they do need blood to survive. She added that infestations with head lice can cause itchiness (especially behind the ears and the nape of the neck) and bumps on the neck. People with lice could also feel movement in the scalp.

Head lice must be treated effectively to prevent the insects from returning. Hot showers and strong shampoo are not going to get rid of the problem. Parents who find lice or nits should treat everyone in the house and wash all bed linens and towels in hot water. Anything that can’t be washed should be sealed in a plastic bag for at least 72 hours. Car seats, backpacks and jackets must also be treated, Chow-Johnson pointed out.

Nits typically hatch in eight to nine days, grow to maturity and mate to produce more nits. So, it’s not enough to target the live lice, she warned. Nits must also be killed, so choose over-the-counter treatment products that will do both.

“After having lice your child will be more susceptible to it for six weeks, so I suggest continuing to use the anti-lice products for those weeks and continue to check daily for lice and nits,” Chow-Johnson noted.

Mango, rosemary and tea tree oil repel lice, she added. Using products with these scents can help prevent an infestation. Daily nit and lice-repellent sprays also are available.

“Be vigilant! Early discovery will save you a lot of time and energy. And in this instance other parents will be grateful your child didn’t share,” Chow-Johnson said.

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health provides more information on head lice.