Health & Medicine

Lice: Tiny but troubling

Head lice are parasitic insects that infest the scalp.
Head lice are parasitic insects that infest the scalp.

Each school year an insect about the size of a sesame seed sends parents into a panic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 6 million to 12 million cases of head lice occur each year among school-age children in the United States.

Head lice are parasitic insects that infest the scalp and feed on blood. They have three forms, and identifying any one of them in a child's hair constitutes a diagnosis of a lice infestation.

The first form is the egg, also called nit, which takes eight to nine days to hatch. These are commonly found attached to the hair shaft near the scalp. Once hatched, the newborn louse is called a nymph. This phase lasts nine to 12 days. The adult form can live up to 30 days, but will die within two days of being separated from the scalp.

Lice do not jump from person to person, and they cannot live on pets. Pets play no role in the spread of head lice. The most common way for lice to transfer is head-to-head contact and use of hats, combs or other items that have come in close contact with an infested person's scalp.

There are several over-the-counter and prescription preparations that are effective in treating head lice. Your primary care provider can give you information about specific products, but the treatment steps are the same regardless of the medication.

The first step is to use a medication to rid the hair of live insects. Second, comb the child's hair with a fine-toothed nit comb to get rid of any eggs that remain. Third, machine wash and dry any clothing or bedding that has been in contact with an infested person in the previous 48 hours. Finally, use a nit comb every two to three days for several weeks to be sure that the infestation is completely gone.

Contracting head lice is not necessarily related to the cleanliness of the person or their environment, but good hygiene is important in preventing and controlling its spread.

You can prevent contracting head lice by:

 Avoiding head-to-head contact during play.

 Never sharing hats, scarves, helmets, combs, brushes or towels if it can be avoided.

 Avoiding contact with chairs, couches, pillows or bedclothes if an infested person is known to have used them in the past 48 hours.

An infestation of head lice is usually nothing more than a nuisance and almost never results in serious health problems