Summertime is finally here! However, many of the activities in the summer that involve close head-to-head contact often promote the transmission of lice. Just the mention of this word will cause most people who are reading this article to start scratching their head. With this simple guide you can conquer this most fearsome pest. First, an understanding of the life cycle of this bug is essential to ensure that your treatment methods will be successful.
Lice cannot jump or fly. The louse (the moving bug you may see along the scalp) is passed through close head-to-head contact. This most often happens when young kids hug and play or if they share brushes or hair accessories. Lice may be hard to identify because they move quickly and do not like exposure to light. They live for about 30 days and feed on a blood meal. This feeding is what causes irritation to the scalp and the incessant itching associated with a lice infestation.
After seven days the adult louse will mate and subsequently lay about eight nits (or eggs) a day. Nits are oval, white in color, and about 3-8mm in size (about the size of a strawberry seed). They can be found cemented to the hair shaft about a quarter inch from the scalp where they can stay warm. In about seven days these nits will hatch and become nymphs. After three molts, they will become adults that will begin the cycle all over again.
The most important thing I have learned after many years working as a pediatrician is to assume that all scalp itching is due to lice. This is helpful because early identification of lice will make treatment much easier. Waiting several weeks or months to have a professional check your child’s head will only give the lice more time to mate and lay eggs.
Treatment of head lice is two-fold, as one must treat the head and the environment. This does not have to be overwhelming. Remain calm and remember that lice cannot climb from the floor to your head; so, unless you, or your child, plan to roll around on the floor you need not worry. They also cannot live for more than a day or two without a blood meal. However, a nit may survive up to seven days even if not at temperatures found close to the human scalp. Therefore clothing items, bedding, and towels used two days before treatment should be washed and dried with hot water and hot air as both the nymphs and eggs will die after five minutes at 130 degrees. Items that cannot be washed can be sealed in a plastic bag for two weeks. All hairbrushes should be soaked in boiling water for 10 minutes. All furniture and floors should be vacuumed to remove any hair. Do not go to excessive lengths cleaning your house as it is not necessary.
Treating your child’s head is perhaps the most tedious part of the cleanup process. There are many over-the-counter products as well as prescription ones. The most important part is to follow the directions exactly. Most treatments will kill live lice but do not kill the nits. Thus, it is extremely important to remove all nits with a special nit comb. There are several products available that help to unglue the eggs from the hair shaft to make this process easier. Daily combing for one- to two-weeks to remove nits will help ensure that no new nymphs hatch. Retreatment in seven days is often recommended to treat any newly hatched lice before they can produce more eggs. In addition to home treatment there are several new Lice Treatment Centers that will do the work for you. This will come at a premium price but may help ease the anxiety of doing it yourself. Many treatment centers do not rely on medications or chemicals but rather use heat and combing to get rid of an infestation. If you prefer not to use a chemical-based treatment there is a method that utilizes Cetaphil (an over-the-counter, water-based cleanser) that has been found to be safe, non-irritating, and effective. Again, following the instructions exactly is the most important step. Use of oils such as mayonnaise is not recommended as there is no scientific evidence proving its efficacy.