An itch to scratch: Head lice prevention and treatment

My 4-year-old daughter is about to start preschool, and I’m finding plenty of things to worry about! In particular, a number of my friends have told me about lice infestations at their children’s preschools. From my own school days, I know how quickly lice can spread in children’s classrooms. What tips do you have for lice prevention and treatment?

Back-to-school season is upon us, and this can raise some anxieties in both parents and children.

As they wade through school shopping lists, homework assignments, and extracurricular schedules, parents like you might find themselves concerned about the health hazards of their children’s school environment. One of the most common schoolhouse conditions is head lice infestation, during which parasitic insects, each about the size of a sesame seed, inhabit the human scalp. Every year, there are millions of cases of head lice in the United States, and infestation is most common among school children between the ages of 3 and 12.

Lice depend upon the human scalp for nutrition, and die within two days if separated from their human hosts, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever actually see these insects crawling around your child’s classroom or schoolbooks. Head lice travel from one human host to another, most commonly through head-to-head contact, which is why children, who often play and rest in close proximity, are especially vulnerable. In addition, though it’s rarer, children can contract lice after sharing personal items, such as bedding, pillows, hats, and scarves.

There are some very expensive shampoos and sprays that claim to repel lice, but these products can contain harmful chemicals. There are also strong-smelling oils, such as tea tree oil, coconut oil, and lavender that may reduce your child’s risk of getting lice when used as a shampoo or conditioner. But the only sure way to prevent your child from getting lice is to lock her in a room and keep her safely away from all other children, forever — not very practical!

This is why it’s also important to be aware of the best courses of treatment for head lice, since limiting physical contact and the sharing of personal items can be difficult when it comes to young children.

Signs and symptoms of lice include irritation of the scalp, intense itching, or a tickling feeling from the movement of hair. If you notice any of these signs, you should check for head lice and nits (lice eggs) by using a comb and a magnifying glass to thoroughly examine your child’s hair, especially at the base of the hair shaft.

Treatments for lice infestation vary with a child’s age. For most children, doctors recommend over-the-counter shampoos, topical drugs to apply to the scalp or hair, or, in the case of very resistant infestations, prescription medication.

For very young children, doctors often advise parents to remove the lice and nits by wetting their child’s hair and then using a fine-tooth comb to detach the nits. Once your child’s hair is treated, you can take extra precautions to safeguard against reinfestation. Make sure you wash your child’s bedding and recently worn clothing in hot water, dry clean clothing items that cannot be washed, and vacuum carpets and any upholstered furniture.

Lice are certainly annoying, but fortunately, they aren’t dangerous, and they don’t spread disease. If your child does catch lice, don’t fret — a round of hair treatments and housecleaning should solve the problem.

After taking these steps, you’ll no longer have to worry when your child greets her homework with the proverbial scratch on the head.