Head lice is very common among school-age children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 6 to 12 million cases of head lice occur each year in the U.S. among kids age 3 to 11 years old.
As a parent, finding out from the school that there are cases of head lice in your child’s class is no fun. However, when spotting a louse on your child’s head, it’s important to remember that you are not the only parent who has had to deal with this.
Among school-age children, cases of head lice tend to spike around back-to-school time in the fall and again in January, but outbreaks can occur year-round. Here are some tips to prevent head lice and what to do if your child contracts head lice:
- Prevention starts with knowing how lice thrive and spread
In order for lice to live and create eggs, they need heat (especially body heat) to feed on blood. Crowded conditions and close contact may lead to an infestation. Lice most commonly spreads through head-to-head contact. Girls are more prone to head lice than boys, which may be due to the fact that girls are more likely to have closer contact with other girls, like by hugging or putting their heads together while talking.
- Be on the lookout for lice in your child’s head
Frequently doing a comb check on your child’s head for lice is probably unnecessary, but it’s a good idea to regularly run your hands through your child’s hair to look for live lice or eggs (nits). Eggs are easier to spot if the hair is dry and shorter hair is easier to scan.
- Take steps to reduce the possible spread of head lice
If there are cases of head lice going around in your community, make sure your kids avoid head-to-head contact in school, during after-school activities and when playing with friends. While it’s unclear whether or not lice can be transferred via headwear or hair products, both the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommend that children avoid sharing clothes, hats, scarves, headphones, towels, combs, brushes, bandanas and hair ties. Another tip is to avoid keeping clothing items and headgear in piles, whether at home, at daycare or in school. When clothing, hats and hair accessories are all in a big pile, a louse or nit could get transferred to a new child who puts one of these items on. Instead, make sure kids separate their items by keeping them on hooks, in cubbies or storing them in a locker.
- Be wary of certain “natural” products that claim to repel lice
Some shampoos and sprays made with botanical ingredients, such as tea tree oil or rosemary, claim to repel lice. There is no evidence that these products actually work and are probably a waste of time and money. While using a shampoo with tea tree oil isn’t going to hurt your child, these products do not effectively treat a lice infestation.
- Treat the problem head-on if your child contracts lice
Some of the telltale signs of head lice include itching, sores caused by scratching, a tickling or moving feeling in hair, or difficulty sleeping. To find out if your child has lice, comb his or her hair with a fine-tooth comb as close to the scalp as possible, looking for live lice and nits. To treat lice on your child’s head, you’ll likely need to use a combination of medicated shampoo, ointment or lotion and wet combing, although you might be able to treat lice through combing alone. Check with your pediatrician about the best treatment methods for head lice for your child.
- Combat the spread of lice in your own home
If one or more of your children has head lice, you need to take steps to prevent the problem from spreading. Keep all combs and brushes clean and avoid sharing them among family members. To disinfect your combs and brushes, soak them in hot water heated to at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit for 5-10 minutes. Avoid lying on beds, pillows, sofas, rugs or stuffed animals that have recently been in contact with the child who has lice. Vacuum all areas of your home, especially the places your children spend the most time. Wash all clothes, sheets and other items that have been in contact with the head of the person with lice. Make sure to use hot water (at least 130 F) and set the dryer to high heat. Items that cannot be washed should be dry-cleaned or stored in an air-tight plastic bag for at least two weeks. Live lice can’t survive longer than two days without a blood meal and nits can’t survive without the warmth of a host for longer than about a week. These steps don’t treat the head lice problem directly (which is done through medicated shampoos and combing), but can help prevent the spread of lice in your home.
- Know that contracting head lice isn’t anyone’s “fault”
Lice infestations occur regardless or a person’s hygiene or the cleanliness of one’s home. There can be social stigmas and myths about head lice, so it’s important to educate families and parents about how lice actually spreads in school and at home. Instead of blaming one kid in the class for contracting head lice, parents and communities can work together to prevent head lice and stop an infestation from spreading from child to child.