Head lice are tiny insects that cling to human hairs and feed on blood in the scalp. They are most common among children between the ages of three and 12. Head lice can live for up to 30 days on a human’s body.
Lice are very contagious! They spread easily from person to person. Head lice can be contracted by coming into close contact with someone who has them; wearing or touching the clothes or bedding of an infected person; or sharing hats, helmets, towels, brushes, or combs with a person who has lice. The eggs of head lice can live for more than two weeks. However, the Nemours Foundation notes that head lice cannot be caught or passed on by pets.
The symptoms of head lice include intense itching, small bumps on the neck, scalp, and shoulders, and tiny white or tan specks on the hair near the scalp (lice eggs known as nits). Excessive scratching can sometimes lead to secondary skin infections and sores.
To check for head lice, part the hair in small sections (while wearing disposable gloves). The top of the neck and around the ears are often where eggs are found. Head lice are very difficult to see, so you might try using a magnifying glass. It is more common to see nits than it is to see the hatched insect. If you find even one egg, treatment is recommended.
Products that contain 1% permethrin can get rid of head lice. Shampoos, cream rinses, and lotions containing the medication are available without a prescription. A medical professional can prescribe a stronger medication if the over-the-counter products don’t work.
However, medicated treatments are not recommended for children who are aged two and younger. For these children, remove the nits by hand. Use a fine-tooth comb on wet, conditioned hair to pick out the nits every three to four days for two weeks after the last nit sighting.
National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Institutes of Health. (Jan 2011). Head lice. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001843/
The Nemours Foundation. (1995-2011). Head lice. Retrieved from http://kidshealth.org/parent/infections/common/head_lice.html#cat20029
By Nicole Stewart
Reviewed by Karen Schmidt, RN