Head lice is a condition that can create anxiety among families and caregivers since it requires a treatment regimen that can last several weeks. Lice - or Pediculus humanus capitis - is an infestation that can affect the entire family if not treated correctly and promptly. There are three different types of lice. Head lice, body lice, and pubic lice. It is head lice that is the most common.
Who Can Get Head Lice?
Anyone can get head lice. But typically, it’s school-age children who are most likely to become infected. The American Academy of Dermatology says that girls are more prone to get head lice than boys While head lice are contagious, an infestation has nothing to do with cleanliness.
What Do Lice Look Like?
Head lice are insects that live off the blood supply of humans by attaching to their scalp or skin. Lice are about the size of a sesame seed and the eggs, or nits, are even smaller. Nits attach to the hair shaft and can be yellowish or brown before they hatch Nits are sometimes mistaken for dandruff but aren’t easily removed.
Once hatched, immature and adult lice area grayish color. Because they are nocturnal, they are more active at night or in the dark. They are most often found behind the ears or at the neckline.
How Are Head Lice Transmitted?
Having lice can be an anxiety-producing experience but with the right treatment, you can mitigate long-term infestation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 6 million to 12 million infestations occur each year in the United States among children 3 to 11 years of age.
While head lice are parasites, they crawl but cannot fly. Lice are extremely contagious and are transmitted by:
- wearing or sharing hats, scarves or other clothing items of an infected person
- physical contact with an infected person
- using a comb or a brush used by an infected person
Typically, young children transmit lice when they touch heads during playtime or when they share hats or scarves. Then they go home and spread the infestation to family members via bed linens, towels or personal contact.
Symptoms of Lice Infestation
A person infected with lice may have the following symptoms:
- a feeling that something is moving on your head, hair, or body
- sores that develop from scratching itches
- difficulty sleeping
- red rash or bumps your head, neck, shoulders
How Long Do Lice Live?
Head lice can live on the human head for about a month. But once they fall off or are removed from the scalp, they can’t survive longer than 24 hours. A female louse lays between three and five eggs a day. They hatch in about 10 days and take another 10 days to mature and lay their own eggs.
So treatment is recommended that individuals with an active infestation – and those who live or have close contact (like sharing the same bed) with them should be checked and treated as well.
What is the Treatment for Head Lice?
Once a case of lice is identified, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends treating the infected person’s hair with over-the-counter or prescription pediculicide. Pediculicides paralyze and kills lice and their nits. Pediculicides that are strongly ovicidal, kill the eggs. Retreatment is recommended if there are still live/crawling lice present days after the initial application.
Whether you choose an OTC or medication prescribed by a doctor, it is important to pay close attention to the directions for use. And the CDC recommends not washing the hair for up to two days after applying the pediculicide.
Sometimes one type of lice treatment may not work and you may have to change to another type and use until all the lice are dead. You can use a nit comb to remove nits from the hair shaft.
After each treatment, you have to continue checking the hair and using the nit comb every few days to decrease the chance of re-infestation. That process continues for up to three weeks to ensure all live lice and nits are gone, according to the CDC.
While you’re killing the lice and nits on the head and scalp, don’t forget to treat your surroundings.
Hats, scarves, clothing, linen and towels used by a person with an active infestation two days before treatment was started can be tossed into the washing machine and hot water. In the dryer, hot air can kill lice at temperatures hotter than 128 degrees.
Alternatively, you can place items like football helmets, headphones, hair accessories, combs and brushes that can’t be placed in the washer into a sealed plastic bag for two weeks.
Vacuum well areas where the infected person may have come in contact with like sofas or chairs.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
American Academy of Dermatology