Coping with Head Lice

September is National Head Lice Prevention Month. It’s no coincidence that kids are back in school in September. School is a great place to pick up lice! As many as 12 million American children will get head lice this year. How can you avoid or get rid of head lice?

Head lice are parasites, which means that they are creatures who live on other creatures. All animals, including human beings, have parasites that have developed to live with them. Dogs may be relaxed about their parasites, but often we are much less relaxed about ours.

So the first thing to do is to dispel some myths about head lice:

  • Clean families can get head lice just as easily as anyone else. Lice are not a sign of poor parenting or bad housekeeping.
  • Head lice only feed on human blood, so you can’t catch them from a pet. (Pets have their own parasites.)
  • While it is generally believed that head lice don’t carry diseases, there is some new research suggesting that they might in fact carry some pathogens.
  • Head lice live near the scalp. They’re no more likely to choose a head with long hair than a head with short hair.
  • It’s not as easy to get lice as many people think. They usually are transferred from one head to another through direct head-to-head contact.

Families should be vigilant about head lice throughout the school year. The sooner they’re found, the easier it is to get rid of them.

How do people catch lice?

The most common way that people catch lice is from direct physical contact with someone who has lice. Kids literally put their heads together when they’re working on school projects. They play in close proximity. They share hats and hairbrushes.They cuddle up and whisper to each other. These make for perfect opportunities to get lice.

Lice can’t live for more than a couple of days on objects, and they have no wings. They also can’t jump. That means that it usually requires very close head-to-head contact to spread lice.

This also means that lice can spread through families. Children who bring lice home from school can easily share them with their parents.

Can you prevent head lice?

Parents can help kids understand how lice spread and make rules about sharing helmets and hair ties. But children are unlikely to stay physically separate from other kids. The best way to avoid infestations is to check for head lice often. Catch your child when he or she has only a few lice or nits, and you can nip the infestation in the bud.

Check for lice behind ears, under bangs, at the top of the head, and at the nape of the neck. Use a special comb to comb carefully through the hair and check for nits, which look like tiny seeds, as well as for lice, which are very small wingless insects.

How should you treat head lice?

Ask your doctor to recommend or prescribe a treatment. Pyrethrin treatments can be bought over the counter, and there are other kinds of treatments that can be bought only with a prescription. The best choice for your child will depend on his or her age and weight.

These treatments are used after shampooing your child’s hair. They kill lice and some lice eggs. Because there may be eggs or nits remaining in the hair, you must repeat the treatment, usually nine days after the first treatment.

Lice are developing resistance to chemical treatments, so you should stop using a treatment if it doesn’t work. Rather than trying the same treatment after the first two attempts, check with your doctor for an alternative.

Thorough combing of wet hair over a period of several weeks is a method recommended by the National Pediculosis (the scientific name for lice) Association, and the use of mayonnaise to “smother” the lice is a popular home remedy. Clinical trials of both of these methods are inconclusive. However, it has been suggested that the careful washing and combing required to get mayonnaise out of kids’ hair is the reason the mayonnaise method sometimes works. That is, it ends up being the equivalent of wet combing.

Never use gasoline or kerosene. These were popular home methods at one time, but they are far too dangerous to consider.

Head lice can be uncomfortable and irritating, but they’re not dangerous. Be sure to keep your kids home from school until they are completely free of lice. And be sure to call your pediatrician if you have questions.