Many symptoms are mistakenly diagnosed as head lice. Dandruff, gobs of hairspray and even small insects like aphids that have been blown into the hair on a windy day have all sent picky parents to the pediatrician for treatment. The only foolproof diagnosis for pediculosis (a head lice infestation) is to catch sight of the elusive bugs, but look for these signs as well:
- Persistent scratching of the scalp
- Pink rash behind the ears and at the nape of the neck, resembling an allergic reaction
- Tiny lice eggs (called “nits”) on the hair shafts, close to the scalp, that cannot be brushed off
- The presence of tiny light brown bugs (the size of a sesame seed)
Children get head lice most often from direct head-to-head contact with an infested individual, but it is possible (although more unlikely than you think) to pick them up from sharing hats, pillows, hairbrushes, helmets, towels, etc. The good folks at the Harvard University School of Public Health entomology lab were unable to get them to spread via hats and scarves, but not for lack of trying. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a healthy louse rarely leaves a healthy head because lice can’t survive or breed without a human scalp to supply their meals and keep their babies warm. So unless they’re injured or dying, they’ll be hanging on tight. Their survival depends on it.
Lice do NOT jump or fly, but they do crawl rapidly through the hair. Simply treating a child for head lice does not put you in danger of contracting them, unless you have direct head-to-head contact. It’s a good idea to get yourself screened, however because it’s a good bet that you’ve recently had that kind of affectionate contact with your kids.
There are no shortcuts here, and conscientious follow-up combings are necessary to make it an effective head lice treatment.
Most re-infestations are really continuations of the original one. If hair is not meticulously combed with a high-quality nit comb every day for two weeks to remove nits or hatched nymphs, head lice will mature and mate, causing the cycle to repeat. There have been reports of head lice becoming resistant to some of the chemicals used in these products, which could also be a factor, but the most likely scenario is incomplete removal or re-exposure to an infested person.
To prevent re-infestation, do weekly screenings using a metal nit comb, pull back long hair into a ponytail or braid, and teach your children to avoid head-to-head contact, use common sense, and stay away from sharing personal items. Do not instruct children to avoid appropriate contact with an infested child, as this will spread stigma and cause unnecessary stress. Remember, children will follow your lead, so a cool head and an informed mind should prevail!
Head lice cannot survive for very long away from a human host, so they will not successfully breed in your home, lying in wait for their next victim. One or two head lice may have made the mistake of leaving an infected person’s head; those unlucky critters will live for only a few hours to a day or so at most (scientific journals say between 6 and 26 hours), then perish.
Nits attached to hairs that fall out are unlikely to hatch off the head. They need the heat and humidity of the scalp to incubate them. It’s like taking a chicken egg out from under a hen, the egg will never hatch!
The bad news is that most people tend to overreact, thinking that they need to sterilize everything in the house, or that they need to bomb the house with pesticides (expensive, unhealthy, and unnecessary!). If you want peace of mind, here’s what you should do:
- For washable items like sheets, pillowcases and recently worn clothing, use water at the appropriate temperature for the fabric and your regular detergent.
- For hair items (combs, brushes, hair ties etc.) put in a ziplock bag and put in freezer for 24 hours. Extremes in temperature (hot or cold) will kill any lice or nits.
- For furniture and upholstery, car seats, floors and rugs, a thorough vacuuming will suffice. There is no need to sacrifice a vacuum bag that isn’t full, as the bugs will die long before they have an opportunity to find a way out.
There is no need to bag household items for several weeks. There is no need to sprinkle baking soda on everything you own, and there’s no substance on earth that can “activate” baking soda and transform it into a head lice killer. Head lice cannot cling to plastic or glass, and their specialized claws make it difficult for them to maneuver in any fibers other than human hair. The biology of Pediculus capitis will doom any louse that goes rogue, within hours of its escape.
If the ICK! factor is too great, or you’ve tried unsuccessfully to treat your family with over-the-counter or prescription medications, it’s probably time to call in the pros to help you break the cycle safely and with minimal disruption to your family and your schedule.