Common Myths About Head Lice

“A child in your student’s classroom was recently diagnosed with lice.” That’s the kind of school note that will send shudders through any parent. But it’s not unusual to get such news from the school, given that millions of children ages 3 to 12 years get lice every year. Yes, millions! Oh, and I’ve been there myself--twice in the past year, each time with all three of my kids being infested.

Common Myths about Head Lice

  • They spread disease. They really don’t. They are annoying but not harmful. They can cause itchiness of the scalp but even this rather benign symptom often only appears with a prolonged infestation of weeks to months.
  • You can get them from pets. No, you can’t. And your dog or cat won’t get them from your kids. Head lice like people, not animals.
  • Having lice means your children are dirty. Nope. Actually, we are learning that head lice seem to prefer clean hair. (Imagine my 5-year-old's joy, then, when I told her that--because of a possibility of a lice infestation--she doesn’t have to wash her hair every day and we can goop it up with mousse and hair spray--which seem to deter lice.)
  • Lice jump and fly. In fact, they don’t. They just crawl--off one head and onto another, or from a piece of clothing to a head.

Health tip: Getting rid of head lice.

What do you do if your child has them?

  1. Shampoo. Over-the-counter medicated shampoos such as Nix and Rid are widely available. Follow the directions on the package. Don’t rely just on the shampoos, however. I have found live bugs after a proper shampoo treatment. Also, these shampoos don’t necessarily affect the nits (lice eggs). Repeat this treatment in 7 to 10 days.
  2. Pick nits. After shampooing, you will need to sit and literally “nitpick.” This is a tedious task--it can take hours--and I think it's where most people don’t do a thorough enough job. Put on the TV or a books-on-tape, or something that's interesting for your child, and go through the scalp, section by section. (I wear a headlamp while doing this; it's easier to see the nits under a bright light.) The OTC shampoos do come with a “nit comb,” but it's been my experience that these combs miss a lot of nits. You will find the nits attached to the hair shafts. Behind the ears and the nape of the neck are favorite target areas, but lice and nits can be anywhere in the hair. I find that using your fingernails and systematically pulling off each nit is much more effective than using a nit comb. Some people find this process easier to do when the hair is wet, but I prefer it dry.
  3. Repeat #2: Keep at the nitpicking--you will need to do this every 2 or 3 nights for several weeks. If you leave 1 nit behind, it can hatch a single louse, which can then lay eggs and start the whole cycle again. Nitpicking became family time for us…each child got a turn with his or her head on my lap as I picked through their hair.
  4. Clean up. Wash clothes, bed linens, etc., in hot water. Vacuum couches, mattresses, floors. Anything that cannot be washed (e.g., stuffed animals) should be sealed inside an airtight plastic bag for 2 weeks. Lice, however, can only live 2 days without human contact. After each nitpicking session, soak combs and brushes in rubbing alcohol or medicated shampoo for an hour or longer.
  5. Back to school. Your child may return to school after one treatment with the medicated shampoo.

A mom's guide to treating lice.

There’s a lot out in the media nowadays about how different shampoos made with olive oil or rosemary tea tree are effective in repelling lice. These claims have not been proven but are probably not harmful to try. These are desperate times as far as lice are concerned, and our tendency is to try a lot of remedies. Heat also kills lice but can potentially be harmful--I have seen scalps that were burned when parents used a hot hair dryer on their child’s scalp for too long.

Many people expect to just apply the medicated shampoo quickly, run the special comb through the child's hair, and be done with their lice problem--but it’s just not that simple. You'll get better results being patient, and devoting a whole lot of time to this misfortune. This whole experience certainly gave the term “nitpicking” new meaning to our family.

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