Head lice are the type of creepy-crawly topic that makes us want to scratch our head just from thinking about it. And lice don’t discriminate. They’re an equal-opportunity parasite. An infestation can happen to anyone and occurs in all socioeconomic groups, all ethnicities and all ages. So with this inevitably facing you, we’re sharing — Lice: What You Need to Know.
Celebrities like Heidi Klum and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg have publicly shared their stories about lice being discovered in their children’s hair. A case of lice can happen to individuals with even the most fastidious personal hygiene habits. The good news: while the itching that is caused by lice is irritating, they don’t carry diseases.
Lice: What You Need to Know, Starting with… What Are Lice?
The medical name for lice is pediculosis. They’re also referred to as louse. Lice eggs are referred to as nits. These parasites most often occur in school-age children and to the people with whom they live.
Exact statistics for lice infestations aren’t available because most health departments don’t require reporting. Estimates provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are that up to 12 million cases each year occur among US children between the ages of three to 11 years.
The reason for the higher rates among children is no mystery. Children in this age group are frequently in close contact with each other and give the bugs ample opportunity to crawl from one head to the other. Despite the common belief, lice don’t jump. They can also be spread by sharing hats, clothes and brushes, or lying on a pillow or carpet where someone who is affected recently planted their head.
More girls than boys are affected. Lice infestations occur much less often to African Americans compared to other races. The CDC states on their website the reason for this may be, “The head louse found most frequently in the United States may have claws that are better adapted for grasping the shape and width of some types of hair, but not others.”
School Policies and Discrimination
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics’s (AAP) website, “Most cases of head lice are acquired outside of school. In the report, the AAP recommends a healthy child not be restricted from attending school because of head lice or nits (eggs). Pediatricians are encouraged to educate schools and communities that no-nit policies are unjust and should be abandoned. Children can finish the school day, be treated, and return to school.”
School districts have differing policies regarding lice. Susan T., a kindergarten teacher in Colorado, tells Parentology her district’s policy doesn’t require the child be sent home if they are found to have lice. “Kids in lower socioeconomic groups experience it more often. Because they were being sent home more often, this resulted in them missing more school days.”
Brooke Weise, MSN, APRN, CPNP, a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner of Simply Well Family, has worked in school health programs, and her school district did send affected children home. The child wasn’t allowed to return to class until they were treated and checked by the school’s office staff.
Treating for Lice
When on a lice elimination mission, parents need to check everyone in the household.
Any clothing, including outerwear, bedding, bath towels and soft toys used by the affected individual in the two days before treatment should be machine-washed and dried in hot water. Use the dryer’s highest setting. Lice and their eggs must be exposed to temperatures higher than 128.3°F for at least five minutes.
For items that can’t go in the washer and dryer, have them dry-cleaned. Alternatively, they can be sealed in a plastic bag for two weeks.
Don’t share hats, brushes, or combs that are being used by someone who has lice. Hair-brushes and combs should be soaked for at least one minute in water that has just been boiled.
Thorough vacuuming should ensure the removal of any hairs with nits that may have shed onto furniture and floors.
You can DIY the lice treatment with products bought over the counter. Some treatments kill only the lice, while others will kill the nits as well. Some products contain pesticides. There are also pesticide-free treatments labeled non-toxic.
Nits can be combed out by hand with special nit combs. Weise advises that “If a parent finds head lice it’s best to not only treat the lice, but to be diligent about combing for nits. Parents should comb for nits every 2-3 days for approximately three weeks. This will help to prevent the cycle from restarting.”
It’s only necessary to contact a physician if an affected child is younger than two months, there are signs of infection, over-the-counter (OTC) treatments are ineffective or you’re not sure your child actually has lice.
For parents who are squeamish about going on a nit hunting expedition, lice removal services provide in-home treatments. This type of service doesn’t come cheap, though. It can run into the hundreds of dollars, but… Such services are guaranteed to rid you of these pesky critters.