What to Do About Head Lice

Child and parent meeting with doctor

Each year, head lice affect up to 12 million children in the United States between the ages of 3 and 11. Head lice are a common problem in kids, but that doesn’t make them any less frustrating to deal with as a parent.

In fall, as the school year gets underway, bouts of head lice flare up again since children are in close contact with each other. The number of cases only increases as the weather gets cooler, when hats and scarves become more common.

As winter heads our way, take a few minutes to learn about what to do if your child has head lice.

How Head Lice Spread

To understand how lice spread, you must first understand what they are. Head lice are tiny insects that live on the scalp, in eyebrows and in eyelashes.

How do they get there? While you might think they jump or fly from person to person, that’s actually not the case.

Lice usually spread through head-to-head contact by crawling from one head to the other. They can also crawl onto a hat while it’s close to the scalp of a person with head lice, then move on to the next person who wears the hat.

There are three stages in the life cycle of lice—lice eggs (nits), nymphs and adult lice. Lice lay their eggs close to the scalp. After the eggs hatch, they leave behind empty nits attached to the hair shafts.

Lice feed on blood from the scalp, and their saliva causes the familiar scalp itching many associate with head lice. Other symptoms of head lice can include a crawling sensation on the scalp, swollen lymph nodes and the appearance of adult lice and nits.

How to Get Rid of Head Lice

If you believe your child may have head lice, your first step is to check for lice. Part your child’s hair down to the scalp and examine the scalp, neck and ears in small segments using a fine-tooth comb, looking for both moving lice and eggs.

If you spot head lice, you’ll want to take quick steps to prevent the spread of head lice in your family. To treat head lice, find and remove any nits. Rubbing olive oil in the hair or using certain products like dishwashing soap can help make it easier to remove the nits from the scalp.

After removing the nits, use an over-the-counter (OTC) medicated lice shampoo, conditioner or lotion. First rinse and dry the hair, then apply the product to the scalp, carefully following instructions on the product packaging.

Once you’ve completed these steps, you’ll want to check again for lice and nits eight to 12 hours later. The CDC says if you find a few slow-moving lice after the treatment, you probably don’t need to retreat because the lice are just dying more slowly. If the lice are still moving just as quickly and you aren’t finding dead lice, talk with a medical provider about a prescription.

Because lice can live for a short time on clothing and linens, it’s also important to wash your child’s clothing and bedding in hot water with detergent to stop the spread of lice. You’ll also want to thoroughly clean hairbrushes and other hair products.

Have a child dealing with head lice or another common ailment? River’s Edge Hospital’s Urgent Care Department offers drop-in care Monday through Friday from noon to 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.


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