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Reports of a super strain of head lice have many parents concerned as kids head back to the classrooms for the new school year. The dreaded “lice letter” that comes home in backpacks when lice is found in a classroom is causing even greater anxiety this year, as the bugs are becoming more resistant to over-the-counter shampoos and medications. A lice infestation is about as common as a cold, but trying to rid your life of them is even more of a head-scratcher than the disgusting bugs themselves.
“I had treated children with lice in my clinic, but it wasn’t until my own kids brought those scratchy, nasty bugs into our house that I truly understood their impact. Unfortunately, this new strain makes treating them even more labor-intensive for parents,” says Hannah Chow-Johnson, MD, pediatrician at Loyola Medicine and assistant professor of pediatrics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
Lice are small insects about the size of a grain of rice that lay small whitish or brownish eggs called nits. The nits are glued to hair shafts and are usually found within an inch or two from the scalp. Nits typically hatch into lice in eight to nine days; these baby lice, or nymphs, take another eight to nine days to grow to maturity before mating.
“Similar to bacteria and antibiotics, lice have become resistant to medications we use to treat them. Though it’s time consuming, the only way to truly get rid of lice is to use a fine-tooth comb, carefully combing every strand of hair to get rid of the both the lice and nits,” says Chow-Johnson.
The good news is there is no truth to the myth that head lice carry dangerous diseases. Often, there is also a stigma that a person with lice is dirty or doesn’t keep their house clean, but Chow emphasizes that this is not true.
“Typically, lice do not transmit infections,” says Chow-Johnson. “And there is no shame in having lice. In fact, they are attracted to clean, shiny hair so the assumption that only unclean people have lice is false.”
Lice are transmitted from person to person through activities like snuggling, hugging and sleeping in the same bed. They can't jump or fly, but make their way around when people share hats, backpacks, clothes or by using someone else’s brush or comb.
Some symptoms of lice are:
• itchiness (especially behind the ears and the nape of the neck)
• bumps on the neck
• a feeling of movement in the scalp
“Try checking your child's hair once a week. It's inconvenient but it’s far easier to deal with lice early on than after the bugs have been there for a month,” says Chow-Johnson.
To check for lice:
• Purchase a metal fine-tooth comb. It should have long, fine metal teeth that are close together. Plastic combs are not effective.
• Get a white towel and sit your child by a sink filled with warm water. If your child has longer hair, part it in sections.
• Spray either water or nit spray, which dyes nits and makes them easier to find, on a small section of hair. Starting from the roots, pull the comb completely through the strand.
• Rinse the comb and wipe it off with the towel. Repeat until you have combed through all the hairs on your child's head.
“It's not enough to do a quick visual by parting your child's hair. Lice move very quickly and evade your best efforts,” says Chow-Johnson.
Lice are also tenacious. If you find evidence of lice treat all members of the household. Also, wash linens and towels on a hot setting of the washing machine.
Anything you cannot wash place in a large trash bag, seal it tightly, and let it sit at least 72 hours. Don't forget car seats, booster seats, back packs, hats and jackets. If you have one family member with lice, Chow recommends washing and bagging everyone's items.
“Lice need blood in order to survive, so lice that are not attached to humans typically die in two to three days,” says Chow-Johnson.
"For children who have lice or nits, you should continue to check their hair daily. It is easy to miss lice and nits and a daily check is the best way to ensure you eradicate every single one. It takes just two to tango and produce more lice,” says Chow-Johnson. “After having lice your child will be more susceptible to it for 6 weeks, so I suggest continuing to use the anti-lice products for those weeks and continue to check daily for lice and nits.”
To prevent future lice infestation it’s important to remember that lice do not like scents such as mango, rosemary or tea tree oil. Shampoos containing these scents will help deter them. Nit and lice-repellant sprays that should be used daily also are available.
“Be vigilant! Early discovery will save you a lot of time and energy. And in this instance other parents will be grateful your child didn’t share,” says Chow-Johnson.
Source: Loyola University Health System