Back to School: What You Need to Know About Head Lice

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • It’s back to school time, and that means your children have might come home with head lice sometime over the next few months. Anywhere from 6 million to 12 million children between the ages of 3 and 11 years old get head lice each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While many people think that head lice is a result of bad hygiene, that isn’t the case. Head lice transfers from one child to another through sharing of hats, combs and brushes. Lice can also crawl from one head to another when children are sitting close together or have their heads together.

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    What are Lice?


    Head lice are obligate parasites, meaning they must live on a human host to survive. They have six legs with claws on the ends that they use to attach to hair. They are brown and about the size of a sesame seed. A lice infestation usually consists of only about 10 lice on your head; however, there can be several hundred eggs, or nits, on the scalp. The adult lice suck blood from the scalp, injecting saliva under the skin. Itching is a reaction to the saliva.  


    Treating Lice


    There are several commercial brands of lice shampoo or rinses that are used to treat lice. This kills the lice, but you may still need to comb out the nits from the hair. A second treatment, seven to ten days after the first treatment, is often needed to kill any eggs that have hatched.


    In addition to treating your child’s head, you should wash all sheets, towels and clothing with hot water. Hair brushes and combs should also be washed in hot water or soaked in rubbing alcohol or shampoo for at least one hour. Furniture and rugs should be vacuumed, and any vacuum bags should be immediately thrown away. You should check or treat every other household member’s hair.


    Some people prefer to treat lice by smothering it, using olive oil, petroleum jelly or mayonnaise and covering the head completely. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work because the oils must remain on the head for several hours, and if you missed an area, the bugs can survive. While some people are concerned about using chemicals on their children’s heads, the shampoos are the most effective way of treating lice.


    School and Lice


    Most schools have a lice policy. Any children found with lice must go home and remain at home until there are no more nits. These policies are meant to help prevent the spread of lice. Some schools are changing that policy, allowing children with lice to remain in the classroom so they don’t miss class and are spared the embarrassment of being sent home from school for lice. KOAA reported last year that Pershing County School District in Nevada had revised its policy and no longer sends home letters from the school advising a child had lice. This change in school policies follows guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics released in 2010 which requested schools not exclude students with lice from school.


    Preventing Lice


    Whether your school has a “no-nit” policy or not, there are some things you can do, as a parent, to help protect your child:

    • Make sure your child knows not to share hats, helmets, headbands, scrunchies, hair ties, combs and brushes with anyone at school or home. Each family member should have their own hair care products. If you share a comb or brush with your child, you could easily end up with lice as well.
    • Check your child’s head once a week. Include a head check in your weekly routine. Pay attention to the nape of the neck, around the ears, the top of the head and above the forehead. These are the warmest areas of the head and the areas that lice are more likely to lay eggs. You can also purchase a special “terminator” comb and use this once a week. It will remove any lice and many of the nits. Use the comb on a weekly basis to prevent lice infestations, even if you don’t see any lice.
    • Know what to look for. Adult lice are brown and about the size of a sesame seed. Nits are attached to hair shafts and are smaller, about the size of a poppy seed. They are dark in color.
    • Don’t leave long hair hanging down. If your child has long hair, keep it in a ponytail, bun or braids. Lice can crawl from head to head, keeping hair tied up can help prevent that from happening. 
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Published On: August 12, 2014