The Creepy Crawly Facts and Treatment for Head Lice

One Mom’s Shivery Day

Head lice. Just saying this creepy crawly word is enough to send shivers down any parent’s spine. I remember the first time I heard it as I observed my daughter frantically scratching her head at the kitchen sink. Puzzled at her strange behavior, I called a friend who is a school nurse. She suggested that it might be head lice. Feeling shocked, I immediately began to search my daughters head. Sure enough I found a red, itchy rash at the base of her neck and around her ears. Tiny little white blobs hung from strands of hair around her head. Classic symptoms of head lice. So many questions ran through my mind “How am I going to treat it?”, “How long will it be before she can return to school?” Seeking answers, I began to uncover the facts and solutions about head lice.

Creepy Crawly Facts

Head lice are a common, treatable problem that affects millions of adults and children each year. Some people might believe that head lice have something to do with poor personal hygiene. This is simply not true. A head lice infestation is caused by a grayish brown insect that is as small as a sesame seed. These tiny bugs have six legs that are uniquely designed to grasp a strand of human hair. They like clean unprocessed hair which makes children an ideal target. Children get head lice by coming into contact with an infested person or object. Head lice do not fly or hop. Instead, they crawl from person to person or from object to person. Children who share hats, combs, and group hugs are more likely to experience a head lice infestation. Teaching your child to be careful in personal contact will help them avoid an itchy experience.

Head lice survive in the hair by sucking tiny portions of blood from their host’s scalp. A female louse lays her eggs by attaching them to a hair strand with a glue like substance. Female head lice prefer tucking their eggs next to the warm moist areas of the scalp. These ideal hot spots include the nape of the neck and behind the ears. Lice bites around these areas produce a red, itchy rash. Infected head lice bites will go a step further and be more red and crusty. A child may also develop swollen lymph nodes. Often, tiny little white blobs or nits can be seen attached to the hair strands. Children who have had a previous infestation may have dead nits still attached to their head strands. Treatment should be considered only if head lice are active and laying fresh nits. Parents should consult their child’s school nurse or pediatrician to help determine the level of infestation.

Schools and Head Lice

School nurses are required to conduct head lice inspections randomly on children attending school. The examination is usually conducted by looking through the child’s hair for nits and checking for the red. itchy rash. If a child has head lice, the child is sent home and parents are contacted and advised on appropriate treatment. Parents of other children in the class are also notified and advised to watch their child for any symptoms of head lice infestation.

Policy on when an infested child can return to school varies from school district to school district. Some schools have a “no nit’s policy” which means that the child can not return to school until the school nurse has examined and verified that all nits have been removed. This can result in the child missing several days of school. Some schools, however, are adopting a “no lice” policy. U.S. News and World Report in its October 2nd issue featured the Chabot Elementary School in Oakland, California which has such a policy. “Even children with live lice will not miss any class. Parent’s will be discreetly informed at the end of the day so the lice can be wiped out overnight, nits are not an issue.” Although this type of policy is helpful in keeping an infested child from missing school, it’s questionable as to whether it is safe for healthy children. U.S. News and World Report also states that “while nits stick tightly to the hair shaft and don’t spread from child to child, most survive the over-the-counter treatments and can hatch starting the cycle again.” A child with nits allowed back into a class room could possibly infest a healthy child. Parents should become familiar with their child’s school policy on head lice and monitor their child accordingly.

Head Lice Solutions and Treatment

There are many treatment options for parents to choose from. If head lice are detected early it is possible to remove them by hand. The National Pediculosis Association (a non profit health agency dedicated to head lice issues) states that ‘manual removal is the safe alternative and a necessary component to any head lice treatment regimen.’ Removing live head lice can be a little tricky. If the lice are too fast and too small, the next best option is to use an over-the-counter shampoo. These shampoos contain a chemical designed to kill live head lice and their nits.

Two applications of an over-the-counter shampoo or natural treatment solution may be necessary to fully get rid of the head lice. If nits are not fully destroyed during the first round of treatment, they will hatch after a ten day cycle and begin to grow into adult head lice. Adult head lice will lay new nits and the infestation could become a more serious problem. A second treatment application after 10 days will help to insure that all head lice, both old and new, are dead.

More severe cases of head lice infestation may require a prescription. U.S. News and World Report states that “lice are rapidly growing resistant to existing treatments.” Ovide, is a prescription shampoo that is used to kill resistant head lice. It is highly flammable and is more likely to kill nits than over-the-counter shampoos. Other methods of killing head lice include coating the hair with Vaseline or dousing it with olive oil to suffocate the bugs. These two methods have not really proven to be effective in fully eliminating all of the head lice.

Although shampoos and natural treatments kill live head lice, they are not quite as effective in getting rid of the nits. Even if the eggs are dead, the shampoo does little to remove the glue like substance that holds the egg to the hair shaft. A school nurse friend recommends going through the hair and removing the nits manually. A nit can be removed by grasping the nit between two fingernails and sliding it down and off of the hair shaft. Once the nit is on a finger it can then be transferred to a piece of sticky tape which then can be discarded. This method is time consuming, but effective in completely getting rid of nits and avoiding a re-infestation. When using this method, it is important to consider the child’s comfort. Putting on movies or letting them play computer games will help them sit still through a nit picking session. A special treat or reward for sitting still is also a good motivator.

Cleaning house is also important to prevent an infested family member from passing on the problem. The infested person’s bed sheets and daily clothing should be washed every day for a week in hot soapy water. The laundry shou
ld then be dried on a medium/high setting in the dryer. Vacuuming couches and carpets thoroughly will also help to eliminate any roaming pests. It is also important to disinfect the bathroom and soak brushes and combs for ten minutes in hot water. Fortunately, lice don’t survive very long off a person’s head, so using pesticide sprays is not really necessary. Persistent daily cleaning during the infestation period will help prevent the problem from reoccurring.

Head lice is a treatable problem that generally lasts only a week or two. The key is to be persistent with the treatment and cleaning until all those bugs are gone! At the end of my head lice experience, I had a remarkably clean house and a daughter with squeaky clean hair. I also became a wiser parent, having lived through an actual head lice experience. Who says that nothing good comes of having head lice?

Parents may find the following head lice information links helpful:

Harvard Children’s Health Information and frequently asked questions about head lice as well as explanation of the “no nits” policy.

Kids FAQ on head lice Fun games and activities to educate and protect children from head lice.

Treatments for head lice Information on head lice treatments with a ranking of the top three recommended head lice treatments.

School Head Lice Policy News article regarding the controversy surrounding schools and head lice policy.