Clegg's Blog

Back to School Can Mean Head Lice

500px-School.svgIt’s that time of year again when parents and kids gear up for another year of school. All too often kids come home from school itching and scratching their heads constantly, and upon further investigation it is determined to be head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis De Geer). If you haven’t personally dealt with head lice, consider yourself lucky. When I was younger, my brothers and I were getting haircuts when the stylist jumped back and notified our mother we had lice! We went home with half-done haircuts and had to have our heads shaved. We made piles of our clothes and linens and set them ablaze (ok not really, but as parents we may be tempted to do this). We went through the special combs and pesticidal shampoo, and got a clean bill of health to return to school.

Head Lice - Unhatched Nit - Courtesy Unhatched nit attached to strand of hair.

There are a lot of myths when it comes to head lice. First, they do not jump. Second, they do not spread to the entire body (that is a different kind of louse, the body louse, less frequently encountered). Third, it is not transmitted by animals to humans. Lice are very host specific, and unlike fleas which feed on many types of animals, a head louse will only feed on the scalp of humans. They are spread from human to human by sharing hats, combs, or headbands, et cetera. Encourage your children, especially daughters, not to share items like these in order to help lessen the chance of getting head lice. So what do you need to know when dealing with possible head lice on your child?

Head Lice Nymphs to Adults Nymph stages 1-3 and adult male and female (L-R).
Photo courtesy James Gathany, website.

Remain calm. Head lice are often misdiagnosed by someone who is not familiar with head lice. Small clumps of hair gel or hairspray can look similar to the eggs of lice. The actual eggs, called nits, are glued to the hair and hard to remove. Special “nit” combs are needed to remove the eggs (metal “nit” combs are the best to use due to their durability). A person inspecting for head lice is advised to look for the adult lice behind the ears. An adult louse will be about an 1/8 of an inch long. If you are certain that the child has head lice, consult your local pharmacy for the best pesticidal shampoo, and comb to use on your child.

A pesticidal shampoo is by no means a cure-all, and parents have to realize that it is a pesticide that can cause ill-effects in children if misused. In short, follow the directions exactly on the bottle. A second treatment on the child may be necessary. The next thing parents should focus on is items like combs, towels, linens, and other items worn on the head. These items can be dry-cleaned, or washed in warm water for about 10 minutes (125-130 degrees). Head lice will not survive long off of a host (less than a day).

Finally, if you follow these steps you will have a good chance of taking care of the problem. If you are unsure and need a second opinion, I encourage you to consult a public health professional well versed in identifying head lice.

This article was written by Clegg's Entomologist Andrew Taylor.


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