Medical City Healthcare - November 01, 2016

Head lice. Just saying the words or even thinking about them makes my head itch! Once your kids are in school, the battle with lice will probably begin. Some years it can seem harder than others to combat. Head lice cause a lot of trouble, but the good news is, the CDC says they aren't really a medical or public health hazard.

Still. They're disgusting and miserable and a terrible nuisance.

Head lice attach themselves to the neck and scalp and feed on blood. They're about the size of a sesame seed and can be hard to see. Their eggs, called nits, are even harder to see. They can be spotted glued onto hairs near the scalp, especially behind the ears and near the neckline at the back of the head. Although most people think that sharing clothing and hair accessories or tools — such as hats, scarves, ribbons, headbands, combs and brushes — is the most common way to pass head lice, the little buggers are actually more likely to be spread by direct hair-to-hair contact. However, it's still a good idea to teach your kids not to share these types of items.

How do you know if head lice have taken up residence?

Watching your children for signs of head lice isn't the best way to detect an infestation, but if they complain about any of these symptoms, you'll definitely want to check their little heads:

  • Tickling feeling of something moving in the hair
  • Itching, which is caused by an allergic reaction to head lice bites
  • Sores on the head from scratching
  • Irritability and difficulty sleeping; head lice are more active in the dark

Spotting a live louse is often the only sure sign of head lice. Seeing just the nits doesn't necessarily confirm an infestation. Some kids aren't affected by the symptoms, so you may not notice that your child or family has been affected until weeks or months after they have moved in. Which is why, when you determine someone in your family has lice, the rest of the family should also be checked.

It can be hard to tell how long head lice have been lingering and, therefore, how far they have spread throughout your household. The best way to spot them is to comb through wet hair looking for them. They can be white, brown or dark gray. Once you detect them, call your doctor to confirm. You should also notify your child's school or day care, so you can help prevent an infestation from making the rounds and coming back to your house again!

Matt Bush, MD, an Emergency Medicine Physician at Medical City Children's Hospital, says 612 million children a year get head lice and gives tips to prevent them.

Your child has head lice; now what?

All bedding of infected people needs to be washed in hot water, including nap mats from school. Any clothing worn in the last 48 hours should also be washed in hot water. You don't need to quarantine all of your child's stuffed animals, but if your child sleeps with a favorite stuffy, pop it in a hot dryer for 30 minutes. That should be enough to knock out the bugs. Winter coats, hats and other outerwear can also just take a turn in a hot dryer to be deloused.

There are lice treatment kits you can purchase in most stores with pharmacies that work well. I like the ones that come with a metal comb; it is a great tool to have on hand! Make sure to follow the directions, including the part where it says to complete a follow-up treatment days later. This is sometimes the missing link in actually eradicating the infestation.

There are also plenty of home remedies that people swear by. Slathering the hair in mayonnaise and covering with a shower cap at bedtime is supposed to suffocate the lice. The gold-colored Listerine®, when mixed with water in a spray bottle, is also said to work. Mix 2 parts Listerine with 1 part water and cover with a shower cap for two hours. You will still need to comb out the bugs or nits to get rid of them. If you prefer to let someone else do the dirty work, there are a few professional lice removal places you can visit. There are even head lice removal companies that will come to your home!

Super lice are not nice.

If drugstore or home remedies don't work, you may have super lice. Like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, these powerful pests don't respond to over-the-counter treatments. Consumer Reports has a good article citing the research and how to get rid of these super bugs.

Delouse your house.

Adult head lice can only live for up to 36 hours and can't reproduce without human hair to lay eggs on. So rugs and couches will need to be vacuumed, but they won't be a breeding ground for lice. You can also vacuum cloth car seats and safety seats just to help cover all of your bases. Recently used bicycle and batting helmets can be placed in your freezer for several days. Your four-footed friends living in your house can be blamed for a lot of things, but not for being carriers of head lice, which can only live and reproduce on human hair.

Moving forward.

Lice can live underwater for 6 hours, so regular bathing isn't going to prevent or treat bugs when they appear. Once you have treated and removed the original infestation, you can do some preventive actions. Before sending your children off to school, spritz their hair with a mixture of tea tree oil or coconut oil with water. Head lice also don't like the smell of mint. This can be a sort of shield as you send your kids back into the world. It's also a good idea to keep your children's hair up if possible (or short). When there are infestations going around a classroom, remind kids to not hug their friends or share hair clips, headbands or brushes. Older kids might want to refrain from taking selfies with friends while an outbreak is going around their class or school. Who knew a selfie could be a head lice culprit?!

About Carrie

Carrie G. is a full-time mom of three, part-time chauffer, underpaid chef and amazing cheerleader in Dallas.

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