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Heads Up: Lice Like a Warm Head During Winter Days

Information that won’t leave you scratching your head.

As parents, we have all worried about lice. Just hearing the word makes you itchy and stressed. What parent doesn't dread getting that note sent home in the child's backpack that there have been cases of lice in the classroom?

With winter being a particularly active time for outbreaks, thanks primarily to extra clothing like hats and coats providing a convenient way for bugs to spread, we bring some tips to help you survive an outbreak without losing your mind.

Lice (Pediculus capitis), tiny insects about the size of a sesame seed, are hardy creatures. They have been around since humans have been on this earth. Lice do not discriminate between male or female, if a person has more money or less money, young or old, clean or dirty. In fact, according to the Nit-Wits website, "lice thrive on clean hair." Lice need warm hosts to feed and reproduce. Lice are parasitic bugs that live only off the blood of humans and not on dogs or cats.

They are most often found in the hair (head lice), but there are also body lice. Lice move fast and tend to avoid light. In schoolchildren, lice are easily spread due to close contact. Adult lice can live on the human head for up to 30 days. It is important to check your school-age children regularly for lice as part of good grooming habits. As creepy and crawly as they are, they can be fought off.

A few years ago, I had a very unwanted crash course. I was lucky to find one lone louse on the top of my daughter’s hair. I had been checking diligently due to a recent classroom outbreak when we became unwilling members of this unhappy club. We treated her that night and never found any nits. I also found a live louse the next morning on her booster seat. After that encounter I learned a few things:

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of lice infestation include:

  • Intense itching.
  • Tickling feeling from movement of hair.
  • Lice on your scalp, body, clothing, or pubic or other body hair. Adult lice may be about the size of a sesame seed or slightly larger.
  • Lice eggs (nits) on hair shafts. Nits resemble tiny pussy willow buds. Nits can be mistaken for dandruff, but unlike dandruff, they can't be easily brushed out of hair.
  • Small, red bumps on the scalp, neck and shoulders.

The California Department of Public Health says that if you find lice on your child, you will need to treat him/her with a medicated lice shampoo that can be found at any drugstore. After treating the hair (and any other infected family members at the same time) they say you must comb through the child’s hair to remove all nits. Nits are usually found close to the scalp, often behind ears and at the nape of the neck and are stuck to the hair.

A child cannot be allowed back into class with any nits. Most local school districts have a "no nits/lice" policy.

Notify the child's school, preschool, camp or day care provider so they can check your child’s hair to be readmitted to class and send out an exposure notice to other students who may have been exposed. Re-treat the child based on the shampoo instructions and keep checking daily in very bright light for at least 10 days to ensure full eradication. 

Besides treating the child and any other family members, it is very important to simultaneously wash all bedding, towels, jackets and laundry the infected child has had contact with.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend:

  • Washing all of the items in a hot wash and dry. 
  • Vacuum the mattresses, rugs and cars.
  • Items that cannot be washed in hot water, such as stuffed animals or hair accessories, should be bagged in an airtight bag for two weeks.
  • Lice that have fallen off of the head do not last for very long without a host but, in theory, can be picked up after falling.
  • All hair brushes and combs need to be boiled for 10 minutes.

Many resources are available to help you through a lice outbreak. Pediatricians can help you diagnose whether or not your child has lice. If the whole thing feels too daunting to take on alone, there are local lice treatment services around the East Bay.

The Internet has a lot of information and photos but be wary of the advice you follow. Not all the treatments online are considered safe or effective by a doctor’s standards.

Lori Webb of Nit-Wits says they often see more lice infestations during baseball season due to the sharing of helmets.

Tips to avoid getting lice:

  • Never share jackets, combs, brushes, hats, hair accessories, sports equipment like helmets or jerseys.
  • Never play in another child's bedding during play dates.
  • Check hair often and watch for signs of infections such as itching.

Editor's Note: Portions of this article were previously published by the author in Western New York Family Magazine in 2011.

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