Head Lice Prevention, Signs & Treatment

little boy with organge shirtA case of head lice is one of parent’s worst nightmares, and with summer camp season upon us, the opportunity for lice to be spread from one child to another is heightened. So what can we do to prevent our children from coming home with those nasty little creatures on their scalps?


First, understanding what head lice are and how they survive is an important step in preventing them. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), head lice are parasitic insects that live on the scalp, and sometimes eyelashes and eyebrows. They feed on human blood, and live close to the scalp in order to feed. They’re found around the world, and are most common among pre-school aged children attending daycare, elementary school children, and the household members of infested children. Head lice cannot hop or fly; they crawl. They are spread by direct contact with the hair of someone with lice, are not known to spread any diseases, and the occurrence of head lice is in no way related to personal, household, or school hygiene.


It’s important to know the three stages, and what they look like. The first stage is the egg, or the ‘nit.’ This egg is usually laid at the base of a strand of hair, close to the scalp. The most common places are around the ears and at the neckline, with them occasionally found on the eyebrows or eyelashes (rare). The eggs are very small and oval shaped, and are often mistaken for dandruff flakes, scabs, or hairspray droplets. These nits are usually yellow or white, but may appear to be the same color as the hair. They take eight to nine days to hatch, and are usually located within ¼ of an inch of the scalp.

The second stage is the nymph; the immature louse. The nymph looks like an adult louse but smaller. They must feed on blood to survive, and take nine – 12 days to mature.

Lastly, the adult stage louse is greyish-white in color (but may appear to be the same color as the hair), and about the size of a sesame seed. The adult also requires blood to survive, and will typically live on the scalp for around 30 days, but will only survive a day or two if it falls off the head. A female can lay up to six eggs a day.


Recognizing the signs can help catch them early on. Usually, in addition to what might be seen, a tickling feeling on the scalp occurs as they move around, and an allergy to them may cause an itch. Difficulty sleeping and the resultant irritability may be a sign as lice are more active at night, and sores on the head due to excessive scratching are also a sign.


Prevention can be difficult, especially this time of year. As previously noted, head lice are most commonly spread by coming into direct contact with someone who has them, but on rare occasions may be spread by sharing items of clothing such as hats or scarves, combs or brushes, towels, or by using the same pillow or bedding as someone who has live lice.

With summer come summer camps, camping trips, swimming pools, and sleep-overs. All of these situations offer the opportunity for the spread of lice. The best defense against spreading lice at this time of year is to caution our kids not to share towels, combs, brushes, hats, and other similar items. Activities that involve head to head (hair to hair) contact should also be avoided. And in the chance the kids do come home with lice, recognizing the signs and treating them properly is important.


Treatment consists of using a special type of shampoo, known as a pediculicide. Some of these are better at killing the eggs than others, so be sure to follow all directions and perform a follow-up treatment if and when recommended. Fine tooth combs known as nit combs should be used to remove dead and dying lice and eggs after treatment, and if eight to 12 hours later there has been no difference seen in the activity level of the lice, a healthcare provider should be consulted.

Everyone else in the household should be checked for lice and treated as necessary, and then a small amount of cleaning around the house should take care of them. Bedding and clothing should be washed in hot water and dried on a hot dryer setting (or stored in a closed plastic bag for two weeks). Combs and brushes should be soaked in hot water (130 degrees) for five to 10 minutes, and vacuuming where the infested person sat or laid recently to pick up any fallen hairs that have nits or lice on them may help, but the CDC does not recommend spending a lot of time or money on a household clean-up because live lice will only live a day or two without a host, and eggs will only live a week or so. They also recommend not using a fumigation treatment in the home, as these are toxic and can be absorbed through the skin.

Head lice can be a problem, but knowing how they’re spread, what they look like, and what to do if they’re found are all important steps in controlling them.

Written by: Tricia Doane, FizzNiche Staff Writer

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