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Head Lice: What to Know and How to Get Rid of it

Posted 3/6/2015 by UHBlog

If you need help treating your child's head lice, call your doctor.

Head Lice: What to Know and How to Get Rid of it

Kids share a lot of positive, enriching experiences in school, but some of those occurrences are ones that parents wish could be undone. Just ask any parent whose child is infected with head lice.

"Head lice is a common communicable condition in school-age children that is most prevalent in the fall and winter months," says pediatric hospitalist Allayne Stephans, MD.

Head lice are tiny gray bugs that live on the scalp and spread through close body contact and by sharing personal items, such as hats and hairbrushes. The lice crawl from person to person where they feed on human blood several times a day. While feeding, the lice excrete saliva, which irritates the skin and causes itching.

The problem is correctable but the people afflicted with it, mostly children ages 3 to 11 and their families, go through a lot of anguish.

“Although a diagnosis of head lice can be a source of psychological distress for children and families, with some diligence it is easily treatable," she says.

Often, it's hard to determine if your child has head lice or dandruff because the lice are quick moving and run from light. Although the nits, or eggs, are easier to spot, they look a lot like dandruff or sand. One way to test is to try and shake the white flakes from the hair shafts. Nits adhere to the hair shaft and don't fall off or move. Another test involves wetting the hair and combing it out with a special nit comb designed to trap lice and nits. Wipe the comb on a paper towel to see if any lice are moving.

Parents can find many options for treating head lice on the Internet. First-line therapy includes the application of pediatrician-recommended pediculicide, a chemical used to kill lice and regular combing with a fine-tooth metal comb.

"It is important to check with your doctor before starting treatment, since not all of them are effective,” Dr. Stephans says.

In addition to following the product instructions, a thorough house cleaning needs to occur to avoid re-infestation. This includes: washing and drying clothing, bedding, stuffed animals and toys at the highest temperature settings; vacuuming the floor and furniture where your child played or laid, and cleaning car seats and vehicles where your child sat.

“Many schools have a no-nit (egg) policy and because of this it is estimated that approximately 24 million days of school are missed each year due to head lice,” Dr. Stephans says. “Although it can take several weeks to be sure that a child is completely lice and nit free, usually he or she can return to school or daycare once initial treatment has begun – even if some nits are still present.”

Allayne Stephans, MD is an in-patient pediatric physician in the General Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine division at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital. You can request an appointment with Dr. Stephans or any other doctor online.

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