Help, My Child Has Head Lice!

This article is for people interested in learning how to identify and treat head lice.

Updated:   Published

Help, My Child Has Head Lice!

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it's estimated that up to 12 million children get head lice each year in the United States.  Head lice are very treatable and relatively easy to treat.

What Are Lice?

Lice are tiny parasites that live and feed off of human blood, but they can also be found on the eyebrows and eyelashes.  The scientific name for lice is Pediculus Humanus Capitis.  They are found close to the skin where it's warm and have easy access to feed on blood several times a day.  Lice are not known to transmit disease and are not considered a health risk or hazard.

Lice are very small, approximately 2-3 mm in size.  They have been compared to the size of a sesame seed.  They have six legs that act like claws that help them to hang on to the hair shaft.  Lice can be white, rust-colored, brown, or gray in color.  A female louse can produce up to 6 eggs (nits) per day for a month.  Nits are encased in a shell that is glued to the hair shaft close to the scalp until they hatch.  Nits can be white or brown and are often mistaken for dandruff or dirt.

How Do You Get Lice?

Contrary to popular belief, lice cannot fly or jump.  Lice crawl from one person's head to another.  They are opportunistic and attach themselves to new hosts when people infected with lice share hats, helmets and/or combs or spend time close together where head and hair are touching.  Lice do not discriminate.   Common places children pick up lice from are schools, sleepovers, subways, movie theaters, or anywhere that you are in close quarters with head-to-head contact, even if unintentional.  Common surfaces that lice can be found on when they fall off a host are headrests, pillows, bedding, couches, and hair styling tools.

What Are The Most Common Symptoms Of Lice?

  • Excessive scratching of the scalp
  • Feeling like something is moving in your hair or tickling your head
  • Difficulty sleeping as lice are most active during the nighttime hours
  • Scalp redness
  • Scabs or lesions on the scalp caused by excessive scratching and from lice biting the scalp

How Do You Get Rid Of Lice?

There are many lice treatments widely available.  FDA-approved shampoos made with Permethrins kill lice.  Permethrins are pesticides that can be safely applied to the scalp and should be used with caution.  Read all manufacturers' directions before using the product.  Some treatments can kill the eggs too, but not all, be sure to check the label.  A person infected with lice should have all bedding and towels washed in hot water.  Since lice hatch every 8-10 days, it is recommended that combing through the hair be done daily for up to two weeks to capture any remaining lice and/or nits after treatment.  Another popular and effective method is to shave the head, but this may not be a solution for everyone.  Some have tried home remedies to rid themselves of lice; however, these methods are not scientifically supported and may not be effective.

If you're feeling overwhelmed, reach out for help from professionals such as city health nurses, school nurses or local hairdressers to assist in the removal of lice.  There are also lice clinics that deal with this specifically and often guarantee results.  With a little patience and tenacity, you can conquer lice!

How Do You Prevent Lice?

Unfortunately, lice have been around since the ancient Egyptians, and it's not expected to be eradicated any time soon.  To limit your child's risk of getting lice, ask them to avoid sharing clothing, towels, hats, sports equipment, combs, and brushes.  Remind children to avoid head-to-head contact when participating in activities.  Monitor your child closely for excessive scalp scratching.  Be proactive and routinely check your child for lice.  Early detection decreases the spread of lice.

Catrina Annis, RN

Specializes in School & Community Health


Head Lice - Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): CDC

Catrina Annis is a registered nurse who works full-time as a certified school nurse in the state of New Hampshire. She has a passion for educating the community about health and wellness.

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