Lice: They’ll Make Your Head Itch

The head louse is a six-legged, white, brown, or clear-colored bug that lives in people’s hair. If you’re not already resisting the urge to scratch some phantom itch on your head, you will. A lot of rumors– and some truth– surround these pesky creatures. This month we’ll cover the facts about lice, so that if your child does come home with white dots on the scalp and an itchy head, you’ll know exactly what to do!

Head lice survive by hiding away in hair, are very resilient, and multiply quickly. Lice are very contagious and spread easily, but perhaps not the way some people think. That brings us to our first myth: That lice can jump from one person’s head to another. They cannot. While it is true that you may see a louse “jump” on an individual’s scalp, lice do not have wings, nor are they capable of jumping far enough to reach another person’s head.

So how do lice spread so easily? Most commonly through young children and those with close contact to them. As a female fertilized louse lives in the hair, it can begin to lay eggs (also called nits) at the base of the hair. And when young children – especially daycare and kindergarten age – play closely together, their hair touches other children’s hair constantly. That’s when the transfer of lice usually occurs. It’s worth noting that the louse may survive for short amounts of time on inanimate objects such as football helmets, hats, or brushes, so sharing items like these can spread lice as well.

Our second myth is that only people with poor hygiene can get head lice. This is completely false. A louse can survive for up to 6 hours under water, so it really doesn’t matter how many baths a person takes. If you have hair, you are susceptible to head lice.

Some schools have a “no nit” policy. This can be frustrating for parents and children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and National Association of School Nurses (NASN) recommends that otherwise healthy children with lice be treated but permitted to attend school if head-to-head contact can be avoided. “No nit” policies wrongly assume that nits are capable of spreading or that the nits indicate a live louse. These nits stay firmly to the hair until it is combed out with a fine-tooth comb.

There are over-the-counter medications to kill lice. However, not all are safe to use on young children, so it’s always good to check with your pediatrician first. A prescription cream may be the best bet to get rid of these unwanted, itchy visitors. Once you have used the cream as directed, wash any bedding and recently-worn clothes in hot water. Place any stuffed toys that your child sleeps with in the dryer for 30 minutes. It’s not necessary to treat the whole family, but close contacts to affected child need to have their scalp examined closely for head lice and nits.

Jennifer Adair M.D.

Jennifer Adair, M.D., was born and raised in Mobile. She graduated from Davidson High School in 2002 and received her Bachelor of Science in Chemistry at The University of Alabama in 2006. She completed her medical training at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, and pediatric residency at the University of Nevada College of Medicine – Las Vegas and the University of South Alabama. She joined Children’s Medical Group in July 2013 and currently practices at their Airport office. Jennifer and her husband, Cory, reside in Mobile with their dogs, Fitz and Barkley.