Lousy news: Head lice on the loose

Just reading this may make you shudder, wince and involuntarily start to itch.

Just reading this may make you shudder, wince and involuntarily start to itch.

Well, toughen up, Buttercup, as they say in the parenthood trenches. There’s no room for wimps when there’s a threat of head lice.

And the threat is real — especially if you have kids. In the United States, as many as 12 million children contract head lice each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Preschool and elementary-age children and their household members and caretakers are most likely to get hit by these highly contagious parasites, the CDC reports.

Symptoms include a tickling feeling or sensation of something moving in the hair, intense itching, and scratching sometimes to the point of getting open sores. Irritability and sleeplessness — side effects of the itching and scratching — also can be a tip-off that lice are present, said pediatrician Melissa D. Agan, M.D., with Norton Children’s Hospital Medical Associates – Brownsboro.

Thoroughly checking the hair and scalp can confirm suspicions if you or your child has had the telltale itching, or if you’ve gotten a phone call, email or letter home from school or day care about an outbreak of head lice.

The parasites, which are about the size of a sesame seed, generally stay close to the scalp. Head lice and their eggs, called “nits,” are visible with the naked eye, but it may be helpful to use a magnifying glass or reading glasses during a head-check. Carefully comb through the hair with a very fine-tooth comb and view any collected debris. Sometimes dried hair care products, dandruff or other skin conditions are mistaken for lice or nits.

The most common way to get head lice is head-to-head contact with a person who has an active infestation, according to the CDC. Transmission can happen on a school bus, during sports activities, on the playground or at a sleepover, among other places.

“Head lice do not fly or jump from person to person and are not passed from pets to humans,” said Dr. Agan. “A lice diagnosis does not mean that your child’s school or home is unclean. Great personal hygiene cannot prevent lice.”

The CDC says the following are less likely — but still possible — ways of catching head lice:

  • Wearing clothing, such as hats, scarves, coats, sports uniforms, or hair ribbons worn by a person with a lice infestation
  • Using infested combs, hairbrushes or towels
  • Lying on a bed, couch, pillow, carpet, or stuffed animal that has recently been in contact with a person who has a lice infestation

Besides prevention, over-the-counter products are the first line of defense against the little buggers.

“If you see a live, moving louse on the scalp — typically behind the ears or at the hairline at the base of the skull and as tiny as a sesame seed — and nits, which are tiny eggs ‘glued’ firmly to the hair shaft near the scalp, you can try over-the-counter topical medications to kill the lice in a child over 2 years old,” Dr. Agan said.

Read the medication directions carefully, and follow them precisely, to make sure you eliminate any live lice and developing nits, she said. Anyone who has had close contact with an affected person also should be checked, to determine if they need treatment. If no live lice or nits are found, they do not need medication, unless they share a bed with the affected person.

Over-the-counter medications will generally include information on how to prevent reinfestation, including instructions on how to clean hairbrushes, clothing, bedding and other items that may have been exposed to the head lice.

“Lice can be hard to get rid of, but do not usually require a trip to the doctor,” Dr. Agan said. “If you are unable to get rid of the lice, or are unsure of the diagnosis, you should see your physician. There are prescription medications that can be used in resistant cases.”


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