Lice have pestered humans since the dawn of time. While they are a nuisance, they do not carry any diseases and only cause temporary discomfort. Even though they pose no threat to our health, the thought of them still strikes fear among some parents. Here is a look at the facts to help you remain calm when dealing with head lice.
What are lice?
Lice are tiny insects that feed on human blood. There are different types:
- Head lice usually live on the scalp. This is the type we will be discussing in this article. These six-legged insects are the size of a sesame seed and are reddish-brown. They can live 30 days on the scalp but do not usually survive for more than 24 hours away from a human body.
- Body lice live in clothing and bedding, moving onto the skin to feed themselves. They usually infest individuals who cannot wash themselves or their clothes very often, such as the homeless. They are mainly treated by decontaminating personal belongings.
- Pubic (crab) lice live on pubic skin and hair, but may also on rare occasions travel to other parts of the body. They are treated in the same manner as head lice.
Lice absolutely need heat and blood to survive. They can’t survive for more than 24 hours away from the scalp, and probably no more than a few hours in colder temperatures.
How are lice transmitted?
The main way lice are transmitted is through head-to-head or body-to-body contact, such as when children play together or family members hug, for example.
Since lice quickly die if they get separated from the scalp, they are equipped with very strong claws to prevent this from happening, which makes indirect transmission less likely. Indirect transmission usually occurs when sharing objects that have been in contact with the head of an infested person, such as hats, towels and hair accessories.
How do you know if you have head lice?
Intense itching, a tickling sensation in the hair, and little red bumps on the scalp can point to the presence of head lice. However, it can only be confirmed if live lice or eggs (nits) are identified.
Nits look like little yellowish-white or greyish grains of rice. Lice attach them securely to the hair shaft using a type of glue. Nits can look like dandruff, dust or dirt, except that they cannot be easily removed.
To determine whether a scalp is infested, you must examine the hair carefully for adult lice or nits. It is best to use a comb specially designed for this task, and to sit under a good source of light. One strand at a time (the width of the comb), systematically check the whole scalp and the hair shafts, especially behind the ears and near the nape of the neck. There is only an infestation if you see adult lice or nits glued to the hair.
My child’s friend has head lice – what should I do?
If a playmate has head lice, you should carefully inspect your child’s head, but only treat if you are certain your child has been infested. There is no treatment to effectively prevent lice, and treating someone who is not actually infested will only contribute to building lice’s resistance to the agents used to treat them.
To prevent transmission, tie up long hair, as this makes the scalp harder to access. Also explain to children that they must not share their hats, caps, helmets, towels (e.g. at camp or at the pool) or any hair accessories.
How to proceed if infested
First, don’t panic! Head lice may be unpleasant, but they are not dangerous to your health.
You must inspect everyone in the family, but only treat those infested. Notify anyone who has been in contact with the child (e.g. the school, daycare, camp). There’s no reason to keep your child at home for the duration of the treatment; he or she can return to school after the first application of the product.
There are many over-the-counter products to treat head lice. Your pharmacist can help you select the one that best meets your needs. It’s important to follow the directions carefully, particularly the length of time to leave the product on the hair and the number of days between applications (usually two treatments 7 to 10 days apart). Here’s a tip: when it’s time to rinse out the product, ask the person to sit in the bath or shower, or to lean over a sink, and run a fine-toothed comb repeatedly through the length of the hair. This will remove many of the adult lice.
It is also recommended that you check the hair every day to remove nits. Don’t bother trying to determine whether they’re alive or dead – if you see one, remove it!
Lastly, there’s no need to treat your pets, as lice feed exclusively on humans.
Removing lice from the home
A vacuum cleaner is your best ally when it comes to cleaning the house. Don’t forget that lice do not fly or jump. On the floor, they will die within 24 hours. Nits also need heat to survive and therefore become harmless when they fall to the floor. If a nymph (baby louse) is somehow born away from a human scalp, it soon dies because it needs human blood in the hours following its birth in order to survive.
So what should you do? Wash the personal effects of any infested individual, especially those having been in recent contact with the head (pillowcase, towel, hat, etc.) in hot water and run them through the dryer at the highest temperature setting. Aside from that, a good vacuuming will do the trick. Focus on the objects and furniture that come into contact with the head. Don’t worry about carpets, floors and curtains, but remember to do your car headrests.
Many experts no longer recommend that you place non-washable items (e.g. stuffed animals and clothing that would be damaged in a hot-water wash) in a plastic bag for several weeks. Simply vacuum them, and only if they were in contact with the infested person’s head. Teddy bears at the base of the bed are unlikely to carry lice if the child never touches them, never mind those on a shelf!
Don’t forget: lice do not fly or jump, and they die quickly once they are off the head. So focus on the head of the infested person!
Preventing the transmission of lice
It’s difficult to prevent the transmission of lice at a summer camp, day care or school, because children there are often in close contact. If someone becomes infested, it isn’t the parents’ or staff’s fault, nor is it due to poor hygiene.
Some over-the-counter products claim to repel head lice, but there is currently no scientific evidence that this is true. The best way to reduce the risk of transmission is to stop lice from transferring from one head to another.
Don’t forget: lice are a nuisance, but they don’t carry any diseases. They don’t fly or jump, and they quickly die when not on a human host. Focus your efforts where they matter: ask your pharmacist to recommend an appropriate product and follow the directions carefully, and you will soon be rid of the lice. Sure, having lice is unpleasant, but it’s much less serious than having the flu or gastroenteritis!