Heard about a head lice outbreak in your area and aren’t sure how to tell if you’re at risk? Is your child unusually sleepy or irritable, and does it seem to be spreading? Are you scratching your scalp more than usual? You might have a case of lice.
Lice are unpleasant, but not a danger to you, your family, or your community. Below we’ve listed eight signs that your child might have lice, and some easy steps to take care of the infestation.
What are head lice?
Head lice are tiny parasitic insects that feed on blood. Their primary habitat is the human scalp, and these bugs have been with us since the dawn of humanity. It’s only recently, with the advent of modern anti-insect science and technology, that we’ve begun to take lice-free lives for granted. However, sometimes outbreaks can still happen, even in the most carefully groomed homes and schools. According to the American Institute of Dermatology, 6 to 12 million school-aged children get lice every year in the United States, out of nearly 60 million school-aged children. That’s up to one in five kids… so don’t be too surprised if you find one in your child’s hair.
Head lice go through three life stages
- Louse eggs, also known as nits, can usually be found near to the scalp on the hair shaft base. The female louse cements them to the hair until they hatch, which usually takes about a week. These eggs are only a few millimeters in size, and are usually yellow or white.
- Nymphs are the intermediate stage of the lice cycle, and stay attached to the hair for about a week after they hatch. They go through three molts, growing larger and more complex each time, until they are old enough to feed.
- Adult lice are tan or grey, roughly the size of a sesame seed, and have six legs that end in tiny claws. They cling to hair near the scalp to stay warm, and eat several small meals of blood per day to survive. They can only last a day or two when they are not attached to a host, but die after approximately 30 days of life no matter what. Female lice are able to lay about eight eggs per day. They do not have wings, so their only mode of transportation is crawling.
How did my child get lice?
Head lice are very contagious. Because they cannot fly or jump, they are strong and quick crawlers. They have been spreading from human to human since the beginning of time. Contrary to popular belief, lice do not prefer dirty or unwashed hair; it’s easier for lice to cling to hair that isn’t covered in scalp oils, and normal shampoos won’t wash them out.
6 to 12 million school-aged children get lice every year in the United States, out of nearly 60 million school-aged children.American Institute of Dermatology
Lice travel quickly from head to head, and just a moment’s contact can be enough to transmit a single, potentially pregnant louse. According to the National Institute of Health, lice infestations appear most often in preschools, kindergartens, and grade schools, as young children are most likely to touch their heads together when playing.
Lice can also survive for up to two days on soft items such as clothing, pillows, or stuffed toys. While it’s advisable not to let your kids share their hats or coats with their friends, there may not be much you can do if children are storing their outerwear in the same place. According to Johns Hopkins University, lice can also cling to hair that’s left in hairbrushes or other grooming accessories, so avoid letting your children use other people’s hairbrushes.
How can I tell if my child has lice?
Some sharp-eyed parents might spot a nit or a louse on their child’s head right away, but it’s difficult to notice something so tiny. Most parents aren’t on the lookout for lice all the time. Even the most attentive parent might not notice that their child has symptoms of a lice infestation at first. Fortunately, there are at least eight ways you can tell that your child might have lice.
If your child has lice, they may complain of an itchy scalp or scratch their head, neck, or ears excessively. Like mosquitoes, lice inject saliva into their host so that the blood won’t clot as they drink it. This will make most people itch, but according to the Mayo Clinic, it can take two to six weeks for the itching to start. An itchy scalp may be one sign of lice, but it will not necessarily be the first symptom.
Louse bites start out small and bright red. Over time and with scratching, they may turn into blisters or sores filled with pus. Long-term lice infestations can cause darkening or hardening of the skin, and lice bites can sometimes be mistaken for flea bites or bedbug bites. If you or your child have bug bites that you can’t identify, your pediatrician or other general health care provider should be able to tell you about the origin of those bug bites.
Lice stay close to the scalp for warmth and get around by crawling, which produces an unpleasant tickling sensation. If your child complains of a tickling or creepy feeling on their scalp, especially during darker hours when the lice are more active, they may have a lice infestation.
Lice are most active during the evening and night, when it’s dark out. The itching from louse bites and the activity of the lice as they crawl, bite, and feed on their host’s scalp can be so uncomfortable that it contributes to insomnia. If your child is suddenly unable to sleep normally, it could be a problem attributable to lice in the hair.
A sleepy child is an irritable child, especially if they’ve been tossing and turning because their scalp is full of lice. Having an itchy scalp and dealing with louse bites during the day would make anyone even more short-tempered, but children may be especially bothered by the constant discomfort. If your child is particularly cranky for more than a few days, check their scalp.
6. Multiple children with same symptoms
A single cranky child with an itchy scalp might just have something innocuous like dandruff, but when multiple children begin to complain of the same symptoms or show the same patterns, you’ve probably got lice. Lice can be transmitted through physical contact, or through sharing items such as clothes, toys, and hair accessories. If multiple siblings or your child’s friends show these symptoms at the same time, it might be a case of lice.
7. Dead lice
Head lice only have a lifespan of 30 days, and can’t survive without a daily meal. They usually cling to hair near the scalp, but can fall off when they die. If you see tiny, gray, wingless insects in your child’s hair, on their clothing, or in their bedclothes, you may have an infestation of lice. It’s possible to do an Internet image search to determine if the bugs you find are lice, bedbugs, fleas, or another species you may not want in your home. However, it’s best to check with a professional to make sure that you’ve identified the bug correctly.
8. You have lice
If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms, you may have lice. And if you have lice, it’s easy to transmit them to any children in your vicinity. Don’t panic – check your hair thoroughly, and check the hair of your children. It’s very possible to beat lice as long as you’re diligent and don’t panic.
What do I need to worry about?
An infestation of bloodsucking bugs isn’t a pleasant prospect to face, but lice are relatively harmless. Unlike fleas, they don’t carry any diseases that can spread to humans. Unlike bedbugs, they don’t survive for more than a couple of days without food. Lice can cause discomfort and irritability, but they aren’t a serious danger to your health if spotted and eradicated quickly.
The most serious health problem you’re likely to face from a lice infestation is a secondary problem, and one that can be avoided if you and your family are careful. Because of the high concentration of louse bites in an area and the anti-clotting effect the louse saliva has on the skin, the bites can easily blister when scratched. Continual scratching of bites can lead to inflamed blisters and pustules, open sores on the scalp, and eventually secondary infections.
Even though they’re not that dangerous, lice can be a major cause of psychological and social stress. Unlike our ancestors of the distant past, we’re not used to living with parasites. Children who contract lice or who are suspected of harboring lice may be ostracized by other children, regardless of the length or veracity of the diagnosis. Adults dealing with suspected lice should be discreet when discussing the situation in front of children, but lines of communication with other adults should be kept open and free of shame or blame.
What can I do about head lice?
When you discover nits or lice on your child, don’t panic! Lice are not really harmful, and can be dealt with relatively easily. Sometimes, the hardest part of dealing with lice can be the stress. To make things easier here are a few tips:
- Get a lice treatment kit. This kit has everything you’ll need to manage a lice infestation including gloves, quarantine bags, conditioner, comb, hair ties, etc.
- If you still feel unsure make a doctor’s appointment to diagnose the lice, especially if you are not familiar with lice already. If your child has contracted a secondary infection from sores resulting from the bites, your doctor may prescribe a remedy for these infections as well.
- Gather up any clothing, bedding, or soft toys that the infested individuals touched or wore for the last two days, and wash and dry everything thoroughly on a hot setting. According to the Center for Disease Control, the water should be at least 130°F to kill the lice and nits.
- Anything that can’t be washed should be sealed in a plastic bag for at least two days to ensure any live lice are no longer able to feed.
- Soak any brushes, combs, or other hair accessories in hot water (again, at least 130°F) for 10 minutes.
- Thoroughly vacuum and sweep any furniture or floors where infested individuals may have walked, sat, or lain. Head lice cannot survive for more than two days without feeding, and nits cannot hatch without being kept at their optimal temperature close to the human scalp for the week in which they mature, so your risk of being reinfected after you’ve cleaned these areas is very low.
- Blogger Mommypotamous suggests: After shampooing, carefully blow-dry the hair close to the scalp in individual sections. The added heat will help kill any remaining lice. Comb through the hair near to the scalp once it’s dry in order to remove any remaining nits.
Head lice aren’t pleasant, but following this routine should eradicate your infestation within just a few weeks.