Bugging out over head lice

Mention the phrase “head lice” to any parent and most will react with a cringe. What are they, and how do you treat them if they’ve infested your child’s scalp?

Head lice are little bugs that can make your kids scratch their noggins, but do not cause any diseases, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The worst result of having head lice is a child scratching his head until he opens wounds, which could then become infected.

There is, however, much transmission of head lice in schools, because children tend to interact in closer proximity to each other than adults. Doctors report an increase in the number of head lice cases after school starts in September.

This month, many parents will receive information about head lice from their children’s schools. While some private institutions test students for head lice before the start of the academic year, New York City public schools have a policy of not accepting children who have lice into classrooms.

What are head lice?

Head lice are six-legged insects that are the size of sesame seeds. They only live on human beings, and cannot be caught from animals, according to a statement issued by the city’s Office of School Health.

Pearly white and smaller than a pin head, nits are the egg cases laid by lice. While lice move around the head and on the scalp, nits attach to hair shafts.

A child can only have head lice if he has a living, moving louse on his scalp. He catches the parasite when the louse gives up its host’s head for a new host. Eggs in their protective nits are not transmitted from one head to another.

Once the insects attach to a person’s head, they feed on blood obtained from the scalp. Many — but not all — people with head lice will develop an itchy scalp.

Anyone can get head lice, which are usually caught from family and friends in the home and community.

Head lice can be transferred when people hug each other, or when small children are playing together and their heads brush each other.

Head lice can also be transmitted by objects — such as hats, clothing, combs and brushes — used by infected individuals.

How can head lice be prevented?

Families can do everything right and still develop head lice. Learn how to check your children’s head for these lice, before they have a chance to breed. When making your examination, it can be easier to spot the nits laid on the hair, which are most often found in the thickest parts — at the nape of the neck and behind the ears.

Parents should also tell children not to share hats, combs and brushes with anyone else. Physical contact with infected individuals, including their belongings, should be avoided.

What are the symptoms of head lice?

The first indication of an infection is usually itching around the area of the body where the lice feed. If a child is scratching the back of his head or around his ears, examine them for head lice.

It may take two to three weeks or longer for a person to notice the intense itching associated with lice infection.

How can head lice be treated?

There are a multitude of products on the market for treating head lice. Several medicated shampoos or cream rinses, especially those containing the pesticides permethrin or pyrethrin, can be purchased over the counter.

After washing your child’s hair with a head lice shampoo, a parent will need to comb out any remaining nits with a good lice comb. The most effective combs are those with metal teeth so close together that you can’t see them. If the child has long hair, the lice comb approach can be time consuming and labor intensive, so many parents opt to cut their child’s hair.

There are also hair lotions that can be added to dry hair and applied with a lice comb. These lotions should not be heated with a hair dryer, as some of them are flammable.

Parents should repeat the process of washing and combing their child’s hair every seven days to ensure that the lice do not reappear.

Because head lice have developed resistance to the pesticides used to treat them, the number of lice infections has grown over the years. The National Pediculosis Association believes that prescription pesticides, such as malathion and lindane, are not only ineffective at treating infections, but are also dangerous if they are used after the child has been treated with an over-the-counter pesticide. The Association “advises parents to discontinue the use of any treatment at the earliest sign of failure and to avoid using other chemicals. Manual removal is the best option whenever possible.”

All bedding, towels and clothing from infected individuals should be cleaned with soap and hot water, and placed in a dryer for at least 20 minutes to help kill off any remaining lice. Toys and other belongings can be placed in plastic bags and sealed off for 10 days so the lice will die of starvation.

You should also soak combs and hairbrushes in alcohol or lice shampoo, dispose of hair accessories, and thoroughly vacuum carpets and upholstered furniture.

Lice removal has become profitable for many businesses. In the New York City area, there are treatment centers, resembling salons, where professionals will comb lice and nits out of clients’ hair. Other companies will come directly to your home to treat and remove head lice.

Services and resources

The most accurate and reliable information about head lice can be found on the National Pediculosis Association’s website at www.headlice.org/index.html.

Another helpful website is www.kidsheadlice.com/index.html, which evaluates the effectiveness of various treatments and provides lists of professional services by state.

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So the next time you say the words “head lice” to a parent, allay their fears by letting them know all of the information and treatments available to them in their local communities and on the Internet. There’s really no reason to bug out.

Allison Plitt is a staff writer for Family Publications New York and a mother living in Queens with a 5-year-old daughter. If you have ideas about resources for families in Queens, contact her at allisonplitt@hotmail.com.