How to Head Off Head Lice at the Start as Kids Go Back to School
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How to Head Off Head Lice at the Start as Kids Go Back to School

Cases tend to peak as kids return to school after summer and winter breaks

September 7, 2016

As parents around the country send their kids back to school for another year, few think about the problems they may soon face as a result, including one widespread bug that is the bane of parents everywhere: head lice.

But they should be thinking about it. According to Patricia Brown, M.D., a dermatologist for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cases of head lice in children tend to peak when kids go back to school after holidays in the summer and winter.

That's right—head lice are a year-round problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that between six and 12 million cases of head lice infestation in kids between three and 11 years old. They are seen most often in preschool children who go to daycare; elementary school children; and in members of households in which at least one child has lice.

Causes of Head Lice

Contrary to popular belief, however, the problem is not caused by poor hygiene, says Brown. Rather, it spreads through direct head-to-head contact with a person who already has it. And lice feed only on humans, so they cannot be transmitted through contact with pets.

It is easy to understand why head lice is seen most often in children. The blood-sucking insects, which are close to a sesame seed in size and have a tan or gray-white color, move by crawling rather than flying or jumping. Children often play closely together in large groups, often leading to direct head-to-head contact while playing or talking. Head lice attach themselves to the skin on the head, like ticks, and then they lay eggs known as nits in the hair.

How to Prevent Head Lice

There are many steps a parent can take to head off head lice from taking root in the home. These include:

  • Teaching kids to avoid direct head-to-head contact with other kids, such as when playing or during a slumber party
  • Teaching kids not to share articles of clothing and supplies, such as hats, scarves, combs, brushes, hair ties, or headphones
  • Disinfecting all combs and brushes used by a person who has head lice by soaking in hot water for five to 10 minutes
  • Not lying on any beds, couches, pillows, carpets, or stuffed animals that were recently in contact with a person who has head lice
  • Cleaning all items that were in contact with the head of anyone who has head lice in the 48 hours before treatment. Clothing, bed linens, and similar articles should be machine washed and dried in hot water and a high heat drying cycle, and any articles not washable should be either dry-cleaned or sealed in a plastic bag and stored away for two weeks.
  • Vacuuming floors and furniture, especially areas where the person who had head lice either sat or lay
  • Not using insecticide sprays or fogs, which are unnecessary for controlling head lice and may be toxic if inhaled or absorbed through the skin
  • Checking everyone in the family for lice for one week after finishing treatment with lice medication. A healthcare professional should be contacted if any live lice are found.

The process of checking for lice or nits is simple. Part the hair in several spots and use a magnifying glass and a bright light to make spotting them easier. It may be easier to spot nits than lice because lice can move quickly. Although nits can resemble dandruff, they may be identified by picking up a hair strand near the scalp and pulling the fingernail across the area where a nit is suspected. Nits stay firmly attached to the hair, Brown says, while dandruff comes off easily.

Treating Head Lice

The FDA has approved several treatments for head lice, including both over-the-counter treatments as well as prescription drugs in the form of shampoos, creams, and lotions. However, parents should read product labels carefully to ensure safety, as many products used to treat head lice are not intended to be used in children under age two.

If head lice is found on a child, parents can follow these steps to treat the problem safely and correctly:

  • Rinse the treatment product from the hair and scalp, then use either a fine-toothed comb or a special "nit comb" to remove any dead lice and nits.
  • Only apply the product to the scalp and the hair attached to it, not on any other body hair.
  • Discuss recommended treatments based on the age and weight of the child with a pediatrician or pharmacist before beginning treatment.
  • Follow the instructions on the label of the medication exactly and never use it more often than directed unless a healthcare professional advises otherwise.
  • Use the products to treat a child's head lice only when supervised by an adult.