Preventing the Spread of Lice | UPMC HealthBeat

Your kids bring lots of papers and assignments home from school. But they may end up bringing home head lice, too. These tiny, wingless, seed-like bugs are a big nuisance.

But thankfully, they don’t carry diseases or cause serious problems. Treating head lice requires several steps. By following these, you can keep your family, bedding, and household items free of infestation.

Never Miss a Beat!

Get Healthy Tips Sent to Your Phone!

Message and data rates may apply. Text the word STOP to opt out and HELP for help. Click here to view the privacy and terms.

What Is Lice?

Lice are tiny, wingless, seed-like bugs that live on the scalp and feed off your blood. The first sign you may have lice is an itch that won’t go away. When you’re scratching, the lice have been living in your hair for a couple of weeks.

When the lice bite, their saliva gets into the person’s blood. The saliva can cause an allergic reaction in the scalp, making it itchy. Studies suggest that only half of the population is allergic to lice saliva, so not everyone infected will be itchy.

Head lice need to feed off blood several times a day. They gravitate toward specific areas of the body to feed. This is usually behind the ears and closer to the neck.

Other skin conditions — such as eczemadandruff, sensitivities, and allergies — can also cause itching. To be sure your child has lice, look for small white or yellowish particles called nits. If these nits don’t slide off when you brush them, it’s probably head lice.

The nits are the lice eggs. If they aren’t removed, they can hatch and start an infection all over again. Since not everyone with lice itches, it’s a good idea to do head checks periodically to look for nits and live lice.

How Is Lice Spread?

While you may feel embarrassed lice found their way into your home, they are more common than you may think. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about six million to 12 million children get it every year. Infected kids will unknowingly pass it along to their families and peers.

Lice are highly contagious and spread quickly from person to person. This is especially true in group settings like classrooms. That’s why lice are so prevalent during the school year.

If treatment does not entirely kill the lice, the nits will hatch and start the cycle of infestation all over.

What can cause lice to spread?

Lice can spread from just being near another head. Lice can crawl and firmly cling to the hair shaft where they lay their eggs.

Some things increase the risk of spreading lice. Anything that touches the hair or scalp can transfer lice. This includes items like:
  • Barrettes
  • Combs
  • Hair brushes
  • Hats
  • Headbands
  • Pillows
  • Towels

Bringing heads close together can also spread lice. Head-to-head contact during selfies or other activities transfers lice from one person to another. Since they are small, you may not see the bugs crawling around unless the infestation is significant.

Lice need a host to survive but can live about 24 to 36 hours on surfaces. This can include textiles like furniture or pillowcases. The lice can survive and transfer if these surfaces or items are not cleaned daily.

How to Treat Head Lice

Step 1: Don’t panic.

Lice may creep you out, but they don’t spread disease. These bugs are not dangerous to your child, so take a deep breath and don’t panic. You can do this.

Encourage your child not to scratch their scalp, which can lead to infection. Follow the steps below to rid them of this pest.

Step 2: Check your child’s scalp for lice or lice eggs.

First, do a scalp check on your child. Then check everyone else in your home. You’re looking for nits, the lice eggs.

Nits are tiny yellow, tan, or brown dots. You can’t brush or shake them out of the hair. A hatched egg looks white or clear. Adult lice are gray or tan and about the size of a sesame seed.

Use a magnifying glass and a bright light to look for lice and nits on your child’s scalp. Check to see if the lice have infected anyone else in the family. Treat all people infected with lice at the same time.

If someone does not have lice, keep it that way by avoiding close head-to-head contact with the infected child. Do not share hair accessories, combs, or brushes. Avoid contact with shared furniture that might contain lice, like the couch.

Step 3: Buy over-the-counter lice medicines (pediculicides).

Over-the-counter lice medicines are the first treatment step if your child has lice. This medicine often comes in the form of shampoo or lotion. Apply it by 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 crucial to be meticulous. Lice and nits are firmly attached to the hair close to the scalp and can be easy to miss.

The lice hatching and laying eggs cycle repeats every two to three days. Use a lice comb to check your child’s scalp and neck for lice every few days. Remove any that you see.

Based on the package instructions, you may need to apply another dose of medicine after a week. If you still see lice or nits in your child’s hair after ten days, ask your doctor about other treatment options.

Step 4: Wash items 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.

If you can’t wash an item, you can seal it in a plastic bag to suffocate and kill any lice. Vacuuming can help to remove lice and nits from items like furniture that can’t go in the laundry.

Step 5: Learn about the lice policy at your child’s school.

School policies on lice vary. Ask your child’s school nurse or the childcare center director when your child can return to school.

Dispel the Myths about Lice

Many rumors surround this condition. Verifying fact versus fiction is vital to prevent the spread of lice and its stigma.

  • Head lice have nothing to do with personal hygiene or household cleanliness.
  • Lice don’t fly or jump.
  • Lice don’t carry diseases or infections.
  • Pets cannot transmit or get lice from humans.

Editor's Note: This video was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

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.