The head louse is a tiny, wingless parasitic insect that lives among human hairs and feeds on extremely small amounts of blood drawn from the scalp. Although they may sound gross, lice (the plural of louse) are a very common problem, especially for kids ages 3 years to 12 years.
Lice aren't dangerous and they don't spread disease, but they are contagious and can just be annoying. Their bites may cause a child's scalp to become itchy and inflamed, and persistent scratching may lead to skin irritation and even infection. Though very small, lice can be seen by the naked eye. The adult louse is no bigger than a sesame seed and is grayish-white or tan. Lice eggs (called nits) look like tiny yellow, tan, or brown dots before they hatch. Lice lay nits on hair shafts close to the scalp, where the temperature is perfect for keeping warm until they hatch. Nits look sort of like dandruff, only they can't be removed by brushing or shaking them off.
You want to treat head lice quickly as soon as you notice them because they can spread easily from person to person. Lice are highly contagious and can spread quickly from person to person, especially in group settings (schools, childcare centers, slumber parties, sports activities, and camps).
Though they can't fly or jump, these tiny parasites have specially adapted claws that allow them to crawl and cling firmly to hair. They spread mainly through head-to-head contact, but sharing clothing, bed linens, combs, brushes, and hats can also help pass them along. Kids are most prone to catching lice because they tend to have close physical contact with each other and often share personal items.
We recommend that you use a medicated shampoo, cream rinse, or lotion to kill the lice. These may be over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medications, depending on what treatments have already been tried. Medicated lice treatments usually kill the lice and nits, but it may take a few days for the itching to stop.
Here are some simple ways to get rid of the lice and their eggs, and help prevent a lice reinfestation:
- Wash all bed linens and clothing that's been recently worn by anyone in your home who's infested in very hot water (130° F [54.4° C]), then put them in the hot cycle of the dryer for at least 20 minutes.
- Have bed linens, clothing, and stuffed animals and plush toys that can't be washed dry-cleaned. Or, put them in airtight bags for 2 weeks.
- Vacuum carpets and any upholstered furniture (in your home or car).
- Soak hair-care items like combs, barrettes, hair ties or bands, headbands, and brushes in rubbing alcohol or medicated shampoo for 1 hour. You can also wash them in hot water or just throw them away.
- Because lice are easily passed from person to person in the same house, bedmates and infested family members will also need treatment to prevent the lice from coming back