They're small, creepy and suck your blood. Every parent dreads it, but it's inevitable -- the "lice letter." Though a lice infestation is about as common as a cold, trying to rid your life of them can be as much of a head-scratcher as those disgusting bugs themselves.
"I had treated kids with lice in clinic, but it wasn't until my own kids brought those scratchy, nasty bugs into our house that I truly understood their impact," said Dr. Hannah Chow-Johnson, pediatrician at Loyola University Health System and assistant professor of pediatrics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. Often, there is a stigma that a person with lice is dirty or doesn't keep their house clean. According to Chow this is untrue.
"There is no shame in having lice. In fact, they are attracted to clean, shiny hair so the assumption that only unclean people having lice is false," said Chow.
She also debunks the myth that head lice carry dangerous diseases.
"Typically, lice do not transmit infections. It's just creepy to think about and they are a nuisance to already busy moms and dads," said Chow.
Lice are small insects about the size of a grain of rice which lay small whitish or brownish eggs called nits. These are glued to hair shafts and are usually found within an inch or two from the scalp. Nits typically hatch in eight to nine days. And baby lice, or nymphs, take another eight to nine days to grow to maturity before mating. They are transmitted from person to person through activities like snuggling, hugging and sleeping in the same bed. They can't jump or fly, but make their way around when people share hats, backpacks, clothes or by using someone else's brush or comb.
"Lice need blood in order to survive, so lice that are not attached to humans typically die in two to three days," said Chow.
Here are some symptoms of lice: • itchiness (especially behind the ears and the nape of the neck) • bumps on the neck • sometimes there is a feeling of movement in the scalp
"Try checking your child's hair once a week. It's inconvenient but it's far easier to deal with lice early on than after the bugs have been there for a month," said Chow.
To check for lice she suggests: • Purchase a fine-tooth comb. The combs that come with other over the counter anti-lice solutions are not fine enough to look for lice or nits. • Get a white towel and sit your child by a sink filled with warm water. If your child has longer hair, part it in sections. • Spray either water or nit spray on a small section of hair, and starting from the roots, pull the comb completely through the strand. • Rinse the comb and wipe it off with the towel. Repeat until you have combed through all the hairs on your child's head.
"It's not enough to do a quick visual by parting your child's hair. Lice move very quickly and evade your best efforts," said Chow.
Lice are also tenacious and can't be killed with a hot shower or strong shampoo. If you find evidence of lice treat all members of the household. Also, wash linens and towels on a hot setting of the washing machine. Anything you cannot wash place in a large trash bag, seal it tightly, and let it sit at least 72 hours. Don't forget car seats, booster seats, back packs, hats and jackets. If you have one family member with lice, you are better off washing and bagging everyone's items.
There are many different types of medications for lice, but remember many of these kill live lice, but DO NOT kill nits. If you do not remove the nits, the cycle will start all over again. I remember a patient of mine complaining that the lice kept coming back. That was partially true, as they never went away," said Chow.
She suggests using products which help highlight nits visually. These do not require a prescription and are equally effective in eradicating live lice but not the nits. The benefit of these solutions is that they need to be on the hair only about 10-15 minutes before killing lice and loosening the glue from the nits.
"For children who have many lice and/or nits, you should check his/her hair daily as it is easy to miss lice and nits. This is best way to ensure you eradicate every single one. It takes just two to tango and produce more lice," said Chow. "After having lice your child will be more susceptible to it for 6 weeks so I suggest continuing to use the anti lice products for those weeks and continue to check daily for lice and nits."
To prevent future lice infestation it's important to remember that lice do not like scents such as mango, rosemary or tea tree oil. Shampoos containing these scents will help deter them. Nit and lice-repellant sprays that should be used daily also are available.
"Be vigilant! Early discovery will save you a lot of time and energy. And in this instance other parents will be grateful your child didn't share," said Chow.
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