Every day, millions of parents across the United States wake their children up, get them dressed and send them out the door to school with their lunches. And every day, about 30,000 kids come home in the afternoon with a few extra friends: head lice. While your first reaction to lice is to recoil, remember that lice do not transmit diseases like mosquitoes or ticks and are relatively harmless. Lice is common among children and does not represent bad hygiene.
Lice are transmitted when people have direct contact or share personal items, like hats, brushes, towels, combs or pillows. Lice move by crawling and do not jump or fly. Dogs, cats and other pets do not transmit lice. While many cases of lice transmission happen at school or play dates, it can also happen during athletics practice or games where children often have to share helmets. That being said, make sure you impress upon your child how important it is to not share these things with other people. It doesn’t take much contact for lice to spread.
Be on the Lookout
Let’s face it: Being cautionary and telling your child not to share personal items can stop some transmission of lice, but transmission most often occurs during play and simply being in close contract. If your little one comes home with some of these bothersome parasites, you need to know what to look for.
- Itching – The most common symptoms, but may take 4-6 weeks after infection to develop. You will probably notice your child scratching at their scalp and you might hear them complain of itching.
- Small red bumps and sores – In addition to sores that develop from scratching, you may notice the bites themselves, which sometimes look like small red bumps.
- Adult and baby lice – Even though lice are small, you can still see them with the naked eye. Adult lice are about the size of a sesame seed and are grayish or tan. Baby lice – called nymphs – are smaller. They become adults about 1 to 2 weeks after hatching.
- Eggs (or nits) - This is actually the easiest way to tell if your child has lice, because, unless the infestation is heavy, they are easier to see. However, they can very commonly be confused with dandruff or other debris on the hair. Nits are yellow or brown in color and are very close to the scalp on the hair shaft. The lice lay their eggs here because of the warmth they receive until hatching. After the lice hatch, the eggs stay attached to the hair and look white, but don’t easily brush away like dandruff.
If in doubt of what you are seeing in your child’s hair is actually lice, it is best to see your pediatrician to confirm the diagnosis. Children do not have to stay home from school when being treated with lice.
Many over-the-counter treatments are available. The most common way people treat lice is a three-part combination. First, the hair must be washed with a medicated shampoo to kill the lice. After that, the hair must be combed through thoroughly to make sure that there are no nits left behind. Some formulations require a second treatment 1-2 weeks later. Read the package directions or ask your pediatrician. Special combs can be purchased to make this task a little easier. Third, all of the things that come into contact with the head must be washed in at least 130-degree water with a gentle cleanser. This means sheets, head wear, brushes – if it came in contact with the head, it needs to be cleaned. If it can’t be put into the washing machine, it can be dry-cleaned. If it can’t be washed at all, it can be stored in a sealed plastic bag for a week or two – lice can’t live off of the body for more than a few days, so you want to make sure that if there are eggs on anything, they don’t cause a re-infestation. If you are worried that a re-infestation has occurred then go see your pediatrician prior to re-treating to make sure that lice is what is actually causing the problem and to see if a prescription medication is needed.
If you find that another child in your little one’s class or on their team has lice, it may be a good idea to look through their hair even if they’re not exhibiting signs – everyone reacts to lice differently. As always, if you have any questions, the best course of action is to call your physician.
Dr. Jessica Lanerie is a pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold’s new Sienna Plantation Clinic. After receiving her medical degree from Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Medicine in 2013, Dr. Lanerie completed a residency in Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in 2016. Her clinical interests include weight management, asthma and eczema.