When you suspect your child has head lice, you may have a lot on your mind: You worry about the lice harming your child, how you can keep the rest of your family safe — and how you can keep your bedding and household items free of infestation.
Treating head lice requires several specific steps that any parent can manage. It is important for you and your child to remember that head lice, while uncomfortable, are not a result of poor hygiene. It is a problem that easily can be treated.
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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, 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.
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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 non-surgical options. We operate several specialty centers for various conditions. The UPMC Cosmetic Surgery and Skin Health Center is the most comprehensive dermatologic laser facility in the region. With UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, we offer a Skin Cancer Program that provides complete care from screenings, diagnosis, treatment, and beyond.