It’s time to get back to school. Shifting gears from epic summertime adventures to books, backpacks, homework – and head lice?

Head lice infestations are common, affecting an estimated 6 million to 12 million people each year. As the younger kids in pre-k, kindergarten, and elementary school return to tighter quarters with increased head-to-head exposure, experts warn parents and teachers that head lice cases are likely to spread. In some schools, occasional cases will pop up, while other schools will be dealing with full-blown outbreaks.

The Blame Game

Parents often blame the schools for the outbreaks and vice-versa. Getting head lice (louse) is not an indication of poor hygiene. Lice cannot propel themselves from head to head without close physical contact, or if people share a hairbrush, hat, or other items that may touch the hair.

Equal Opportunity Infesters

Lice are equal opportunity infesters and do not discriminate between clean and dirty or rich and poor. Lice spread more in children because they play in closer proximity and have more head-to-head contact. Think about sleepovers, playing video games closely, and posing for group pictures. In fact selfies in general are a cause of spreading lice to all sorts of age groups.

How lice work

Lice work by feeding on human blood and can be found on the human head, body, and pubic area. The main culprit is the female louse. She produces a sticky substance that firmly attaches each egg to the base of a hair shaft. The eggs then hatch in 6 to 9 days starting a new cycle.

Common Symptoms

The most common symptom is itching, especially in the back of your head and neck and near your ears – areas where lice are more likely to live.

Symptoms of head lice include:

  • Feeling like something in your hair is moving (tickling)
  • Itching
  • Sores from itching and scratching
  • Difficulty sleeping

Head lice are most active at night, which can disrupt sleep.
Frequent itching can break the skin on your head which can lead to infections.

How to find and diagnose head lice?

To diagnose head lice you need to do a visual inspection. If you look closely at the hair on the scalp, you may be able to the tiny white nits attached to the hair shafts, Nits resemble dandruff but aren’t as easy to brush or shake off the hair. Adult lice can move quickly and are difficult to see.

You can check for lice at home if you suspect your child (or whoever) has head lice by running a fine-toothed comb or a special head lice comb slowly through the person’s hair to locate nits or lice.

How to treat head lice

Treatment for head lice includes using over-the-counter medicated or prescription shampoos, lotions, or creams that eliminate head lice. Over-the-counter medicated shampoos contain a substance called pyrethrin or permethrin that kills lice and nits.
Lice and nits attach to the strands of your hair and can be hard to remove unless you use a fine-toothed comb to loosen them. After using a comb or brush, soak the comb in hot water for 10 minutes.
Make sure you follow the directions on over-the-counter medicines. The treatment is only successful if you follow the instructions on how to apply the treatment, how long you should leave it in your hair, and how often you should repeat the treatment.

What keeps lice away?

These natural scents are popularly believed to repel lice:

  • Tea Tree Oil
  • Coconut
  • Lavender
  • Eucalyptus
  • Rosemary
  • Lemongrass
  • Peppermint

Using any coconut-scented shampoo and conditioner is an easy way to increase your defense against the louse.

There is no scientific evidence that at-home remedies, like using salt or other food products like olive oil or mayonnaise, get rid of head lice. The only recommended treatment for head lice is over-the-counter medicated or prescription shampoos, lotions, or creams.

How can I prevent head lice?
The best prevention is to not share combs, brushes, towels, or hats with others and to avoid physical contact with someone who has lice. It also helps to examine and treat all members of your household who have contact with a person with lice.

Take time to teach your children about head lice and advise them to:

  • Avoid head-to-head contact when playing.
  • Not share hats or items that they put on their head with others.
  • If someone in your household has head lice, you can prevent the spread of head lice by:
  • Washing clothes, bedding, and fabrics with hot water and drying them with a hot cycle in the dryer. If there are items like a hat or stuffed animals that you can’t wash or dry, seal those items in a plastic bag for two weeks.
  • Soak hairbrushes and combs in hot water for up to 10 minutes after use.
  • Vacuuming areas of your home and around furniture where a person with head lice might have sat or played.

Should I see my healthcare provider?
See your healthcare provider if over-the-counter treatments fail to work, or if there are signs of an infection. Signs of infection include:

  • Fever
  • Sores that won’t heal on your head
  • Pain or tenderness on your head
  • Redness or swelling on your scalp

Lice can be a stressful experience
Hearing that your child has head lice can be a stressful experience. Kids can be mean and teased, as well as bullied.
As children are in close contact with each other in school and daycare, head lice easily spread. It also means that there’s a chance other members of your household could get head lice as well. Make sure you follow the treatment as recommended by the instructions on the treatment product or from your healthcare provider and educate your family on head lice to prevent others from getting and spreading it. Following instructions and repeating treatment as necessary eliminates head lice quickly and effectively.