The Parent's Complete Guide to Head Lice

Answers to frequently asked questions

Mother combing daughter's hair with nitcomb
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The head louse (plural: head lice) is a very small parasite - adult head lice are usually 2 to 3 millimeters long - that lives among human hair and feed off of blood drawn from the scalp. Head lice are common and very contagious among school-aged kids, making them a source of major frustration for many parents.

Lice are a pain to deal with, but they aren't dangerous. They don't carry diseases, but scratching their bites can sometimes lead to infection.

As a parent, you likely have some concerns about how lice are spread, how to get rid of them and how to prevent them. This FAQ guide provides a comprehensive overview of everything you need to know.

What are head lice?

Head lice are parasitic insects that attach themselves to human hair and feed on the blood they find in the scalp. These parasites are usually transferred from one person to another through direct head-to-head contact, sharing a hairbrush or hat, etc. Lice can lay up to 10 eggs a day and have a lifespan of 3 to 4 weeks. They are fast-moving and can cling to hair tenaciously: their eggs, called nits, are extremely sticky, making it very difficult to get rid of lice and nits once a child becomes infested.

How common are head lice?

While there is no definitive data on exactly how many kids get head lice each year, it is estimated that 6 million to 12 million cases of head lice are diagnosed each year in children ages 3 to 11.

What are the symptoms of head lice?

Scratching the scalp, sores on the scalp, irritability and visually spotting nits (lice eggs) or lice in hair are some of the common ways head lice can be detected in children.

Could my child become ill from contracting head lice?

Head lice are definitely a nuisance; fortunately, they have not been shown to cause illness.

Lice, however, can cause severe itchiness. Lice saliva can cause a scalp reaction that can lead to irritation and sores, which may become infected. A lice infestation can affect a child’s mood and disrupt sleep. But lice do not lead to disease or illness.

Who is most likely to get head lice?

Children in daycare and preschool, as well as school-aged children and their families, are particularly vulnerable. This is because young children tend to play closely together and are more likely to share blankets and other personal items.

Can you get head lice from shared pillows?

Yes, although head-to-head contact is the more likely method of transmission. Lice can be picked up when someone who does not have lice shares bedding, towels, combs and other personal items with someone who already has lice. But that is much less common than transmission through head-to-head contact.

Lice cannot live very long away from a host. Adult lice can live only for about a day without feeding on human blood, and immature head lice can only survive for a couple of hours. Nits (lice eggs) die within a week away from a human and cannot hatch in temperatures that are colder than a warm human scalp.

What is the best treatment for head lice?

There are many treatment options for head lice.

Your pediatrician can give you a prescription for medications that can be applied to your child’s scalp to kill the lice. Parents who do not want to use medications may want to investigate alternative options, though they should run any remedy they try by their pediatrician since even "natural" treatments for lice could pose hazards for young children.

One of the best and safest methods of lice removal is the use of a special comb to manually remove nits and lice from a child’s head. Your doctor may recommend using a combination of medication and combing to effectively eradicate the lice and nits.

What is the best way to get rid of head lice on stuffed animals, sheets, pillows and other things your child has touched?

Experts used to recommend that a child’s belongings be put in plastic bags and either placed into a freezer or left in the bags for several weeks to kill off the lice. But since lice do not live very long away from the human scalp, the new recommendation is to simply vacuum areas and surfaces on which your child may have put his head, then wash his bedding and towels in hot water, followed by a hot dryer.

Bottom line: Spend your energy and time trying to get rid of the lice and nits on their child rather than driving yourself crazy trying to bag and freeze things your child may have come into contact with around the house.

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