Back to School and … Head Lice?

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Oh, the joys of school starting up again! New books, new teachers, new friends. And sometimes…a visit from a tiny little creature called the head louse. What is a head louse, and more importantly, how do you get rid of it, or, even better, prevent it?

What Do They Look Like?

There are three forms of head lice: the nit, the nymph, and the adult.

  1. Nits are head lice eggs. They are hard to see and are often confused with dandruff. They are oval and usually yellow to white. They take about 1 week to hatch.
  2. Nits hatch into a baby lice called nymphs. It looks like an adult head louse but is smaller. It takes 7 days for a nymph to mature to an adult. To live, the nymph must feed on blood.
  3. Adult lice are about the size of a sesame seed, have six legs, and are tan to greyish-white in color. Adult lice can live up to 30 days on a person’s head. They feed on blood. If a louse falls off a person, it dies within 2 days. Adult lice are about 1/8 of an inch. The entire life cycle is about 1 month.

How Do You Get Lice?

  • By contact with an already infested person. Contact is common during play at school and home (slumber parties, sports activities, playgrounds).
  • By wearing infested clothing, such as hats, scarves, coats, sports uniforms, or hair ribbons.
  • By using infested combs, brushes, or towels.
  • By lying on a bed, couch, pillow, carpet, or stuffed animal that has already been in contact with an infested person.

Who Is Most at Risk?

Preschool and elementary-age children, 3-10, and their families are infested most often. Girls get head lice more often than boys.

How Do You Diagnose?

Look closely through the hair and scalp for nits, nymphs, or adults. You can also come into our clinic for an examination.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms?

  • Tickling feeling of something moving in the hair.
  • Itching, caused by an allergic reaction to the bites.
  • Sores or red, rashlike areas on the head caused by scratching. These sores can sometimes become infected.

What Treatments Are Used?

  • Anti-lice shampoo or rinse containing a substance called pyrethrins.
  • Fine-tooth combing after ordinary shampooing every 3-4 days for 2 weeks. You can also pick out the nits with your fingernails—if you can!

Thank you to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Society of Pediatrics for contributing to this article.

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