Preventing the Spread of Lice | UPMC HealthBeat

Your kids may not only bring home papers to sign and assignments to complete during the school year – they may end up bringing home head lice, too. While a nuisance, these tiny wingless, seed-like bugs carry no disease or serious problems.Treating head lice requires several specific steps that any parent can manage to keep your family, bedding and household items free of infestation.

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What Is Lice?

The first sign you may have contracted lice likely comes in the form of an itch that won’t subside, although other skin conditions such as eczemadandruff, hair products and allergies can be the culprit. The saliva from the louse causes the allergic reaction prompting an itch. Studies suggest that only half of the population is allergic to the saliva, which is transmitted into the person’s (or host) blood from the lice bites. Usually by the time you’re scratching, the lice have been present for a couple of weeks.

Head lice need to feed off blood several times a day and they gravitate toward specific areas of the body, namely behind the ears and closer to the neck. Head lice are not easy to see, but if you’ve got small white or yellowish particles that don’t slide off when you brush them, it’s probably head lice. Since not everyone who has lice suffers from an itchy scalp, it’s a good idea to do head checks periodically and look for those nits.

How Is Lice Spread?

While you may be embarrassed lice found their way into your home, they are more common than you may think. In fact, about six million to 12 million children get it every year. Unfortunately, the numbers are high because many kids don’t know they even have it and unknowingly pass it along to their family and peers. Lice are highly contagious and spread quickly from person to person, especially in group settings, which is why we hear more about it during the school year. Remember, if you do not completely kill the lice, the nits will hatch and the cycle of infestation can start all over.

What can cause it to spread?

  • Sharing hair brushes, combs, headbands, barrettes, hats, pillows and towels – anything that touches the hair or scalp is a conduit.
  • Those ever popular selfies and moments of head-to-head contact provide the opportunity for the bugs to transfer from one person to the other.

Lice can crawl and firmly cling to the hair shaft where they lay their eggs. Since they are small, you may not see the bugs actually crawling around unless the infestation is significant.

Since lice need a host to survive, they only last about 24-36 hours on surfaces such as furniture or pillowcases. Of course, if one doesn’t know they have it and the surfaces or items are not being cleaned daily, the risk for transferring it increases.

How to Treat Head Lice

  • Step 1: Don't panic. 
    Lice are tiny insects that live on human hairs and feed on tiny amounts of blood. Thankfully, they don’t spread disease, so they’re not a danger to your child. Their bites, however, can make the scalp itchy. Encourage your child not to scratch, as that can lead to infection.
  • Step 2: Check your child's scalp for lice or lice eggs. Then check everyone else in your home. 
    “Nits,” or lice eggs, are small yellow, tan, or brown dots that can’t be brushed or shaken away. A hatched egg looks white or clear, and adult lice are gray or tan and about the size of a sesame seed. Use a magnifying glass and/or a bright light to check for these signs.

    Lice can only move by crawling, so they spread only through head-to-head contact or through contact with contaminated bedding, clothing, hair brushes, or combs. Check the rest of the family to see if anyone else is infected, and treat everyone at the same time.

  • Step 3: Buy over-the-counter lice medicines, called pediculicides. 
    This is the first treatment step if your child has lice. Apply the medicine, which often comes in the form of shampoo, following the instructions on the package. Use a lice comb to thoroughly check your child’s hair for lice and nits and remove them. It’s important to be meticulous, as lice and nits firmly attached to the hair close to the scalp.

    The cycle of lice hatching and laying eggs is repeated every two to three days, so it is important to use a lice comb to check your child’s scalp and neck and remove lice every few days. You may need to apply another dose of medicine after a week, based on the package instructions.

    If lice or nits persist in your child’s hair for more than 10 days, contact your doctor to talk about other treatment options.

  • Step 4: Wash items that may be contaminated with lice. 
    Hot temperatures kill lice and nits. Wash sheets, towels, accessories, stuffed animals, furniture, and pillowcases in hot water and dry them with hot air.

    Items that can’t be washed can be sealed in a plastic bag to suffocate and kill any lice. Dry cleaning and vacuuming can help to remove lice and nits from items that can’t be laundered.

  • Step 5: Learn about the lice policy at your child's school. 
    School policies on lice vary, so ask your child’s school nurse or the childcare center director when your child can return to normal activities.

Dispel the Myths about Lice

Many rumors surround this condition and it’s important to verify fact versus fiction to prevent the spread of lice and its stigma.

  • Head lice don’t have anything to do with personal hygiene or household cleanliness.
  • Lice don’t fly or jump.
  • Lice don’t carry disease or infections.
  • Pets cannot transmit or get lice from humans.

About Dermatology

The UPMC Department of Dermatology diagnoses, treats, and manages numerous hair, skin, and nail conditions and diseases. We care for common and uncommon conditions, and our treatments include both surgical and nonsurgical options. We operate several specialty centers for various conditions. The UPMC Cosmetic Surgery and Skin Health Center is a comprehensive dermatologic laser facility, offering a full range of cosmetic services and procedures. With UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, we offer a Skin Cancer Program that provides complete care from screenings, diagnosis, treatment, and beyond. Find a dermatology provider near you.