Head Lice

Lice are very tiny insects. They like to live in hair, so they are often called “head lice.” An infection with head lice is very common in school-age children, but anyone, even adults, can get lice. Lice do not live on pets and cannot jump, fly, or walk on the ground. But they easily pass from child to child through close contact and on clothes, bed linens, brushes and combs, hats, and toys. Head lice infections are not dangerous. But they are very contagious and should be treated right away to stop infection from spreading.

Woman and children in classroom.
Head lice can spread quickly in schools and daycare centers.
Symptoms of Head Lice

Lice are so small and fast moving that they are hard to see. Head lice lay eggs, called nits. Nits are very small, silvery white, and teardrop shaped. They often can be found stuck to the hair near the scalp, behind the ears, and at the hairline on the back of the neck. Other signs of head lice may include:

  • Itching and irritations.

  • A tickling feeling of something moving through the hair.

  • Sores on the scalp caused by scratching.

  • Swollen glands at the back of the neck caused by infected bites.

Treating Head Lice

  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist to recommend a shampoo, cream, or lotion to stop lice infestation. Follow the instructions on the product for how to use it.

  • Comb the nits out of your child’s hair with a special comb that comes with the product or is recommended by your doctor or pharmacist. Rinsing the hair with distilled white vinegar can make nits easier to see.

  • After a week, check the child for more nits. Follow the product’s directions for repeating treatment if needed.

  • Check other household members for lice.

  • Wash your child’s towels, clothing, bed linens, cloth toys and other personal items in hot soapy water. Dry them on high heat.

  • Wash all of the child’s combs and brushes in very hot, soapy water.

  • For items that can’t be washed, seal them in plastic bags for 2 weeks.

  • Vacuum floors and furniture. Throw the vacuum bag away afterward.

  • Notify your child’s school and caregivers so that other children can be checked.

  • Keep your child home from day care or school until the morning after treatment for lice.

  • DO NOT spray your house with chemicals or pesticides. These can be dangerous to your family’s health.

When to Call the Doctor

Do not treat your child for head lice unless you are sure the child has them. Because lice are insects, most products to get rid of them have pesticides in them. You should not expose your child to these chemicals unless it is necessary, since they can cause skin and eye irritation. Call your doctor if:

  • You’re not sure whether your child has lice.

  • Your child is under 2 years old.

  • Treatment doesn’t get rid of the lice.

  • Your child has infected sores that get worse or do not heal.

  • Your child is itchy or scratching in areas other than the scalp.

  • You have questions about your child’s illness or treatment.

Prevention

To help prevent the spread of head lice:

  • Warn your children not to share brushes, hats, and clothes with other children.

  • Have your child avoid physical contact with anyone who has head lice.

  • Examine your child when he or she has come in close contact with a person infected with lice.

Note: It may take up to a week after treatment for your child’s itching to stop. Your doctor may recommend that you repeat treatment a week later, but your child can return to school or daycare the day after treatment.

Online Medical Reviewer: Krebs, Dolores, FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Teague, Malinda, RN, MSN, CPNP-AC/PC
Last Review Date: 3/26/2012
© 2000-2014 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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