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Head Lice

The Prevention and Treatment of Head Lice


Aack! My Child has Head Lice

Whether you find them or the school nurse finds them learning your child has head lice can be scary. Head lice are common, particularly among children ages 6-12. They are not an indication of poor hygiene. Head lice, known by their scientific name of Pediculus humanus capitis, are insects that live people's hair and scalp. They are spread by direct contact with the hair, head, clothing or other items of infected individuals.

Head lice have a three part life cycle. Head lice eggs are known as nits. They are oval and will be found attached to a single strand of hair generally within 1/4 inch of the scalp. They will hatch about one week after being laid. Upon hatching they are called nymphs. Nymphs, which are yellow or white, feed on blood. In about 7-10 days they will become adults. They are about the size of a sesame seed. Adult lice also feed on blood. It is the biting of the lice that causes itching. The itching is an allergic reaction to the bite and much like other insect bites the severity of the itch can differ from person to person. If itching is severe the scratching can cause sores and infection. Adult lice live about one month. The adult female can lay 4-10 eggs a day. Each egg is cemented to strand of hair. They are not easily removed.

Preventing Head Lice

To reduce the chances of your child getting head lice it is important to discuss with them how lice are spread. They should not share hats, combs, brushes, helmets or clothing. The National Pediculosis Association also believes that there is the potential for headphones to help spread lice so take care when sharing them.

Treatment of Head Lice

Pediculosis is treated by manual removal of lice or nits. If you or your child has lice be sure to seek professional medical advice. We are only including treatment information as a guideline. Hair should be shampooed and then combed using a special nit comb to remove the nits and lice. The NYC Department of Health suggests that rinsing the hair with vinegar might help soften the nits aiding removal. Again consult with your physician. Vacuum the floor and wash all clothing and towels in hot water. Any clothing or bedding used within two days of the infestation should be washed. Combs and brushes should be soaked in rubbing alcohol or Lysol for one hour.

Consult with your child's doctor about additional methods you should use. Manual removal may be done in conjunction with medicated shampoos. These shampoos are available over the counter (without a prescription) or with a doctor's prescription. In the US, the medicated shampoos have been tested by the Food and Drug administration (FDA) but they do contain harsh chemicals or pesticides and can be potentially harmful in some individuals. In particular consult a physician if your child has any underlying medical condition. Follow the manufacturer's directions and do not overuse.

Consult your child's doctor immediately if you see any sores or open wounds on the scalp.

Reassure your child that lice is quite common. They do not have lice because they are dirty and they will be rid of them. Once your child has been infected be sure to check him/her and your entire family on a regular basis to catch any recurrences. Remind everyone to avoid sharing combs, brushes, hats and other clothing.

Where to Find Additional Information on Head Lice