Head Lice (Louse): Common Facts

Head lice, louse, basic facts about a common problem among American school-age children.

I remember one summer when I was about twelve, my head itched relentlessly. My mom kept thinking I had dandruff. All I knew was nothing we tried could stop my head from itching. Then one night, I saw little black bugs crawling around in my sister's hair. Low and behold, we both had head lice! My grandmother was hysterical. How could it be? The children of such a clean family could have these nasty little bugs? Fortunately, the stigma once attached to such a common problem among children no longer exists for the most part.

Indeed, head lice (Pediculus capitis), commonly referred to as cooties or nits (eggs) are reddish-brown wingless insects; nits are grayish-white, oval shaped and are cemented to the hair shaft, usually close to the scalp. According to www.pediculosis.com, the easiest way to distinguish nits from dirt or other hair debris is that nits aren't easily removed with the fingers. It's also important to realize that head lice are equal opportunity parasites. They do not discriminate among socioeconomic class distinctions nor do they suggest a lack of hygiene or sanitation practiced by their host. They are acquired primarily by direct head-to-head contact with an infested person's hair but may also be spread by sharing combs, hats and other hair accessories. They can also remain on bedding, furniture and carpeting for a brief period, though lice typically cannot survive without a host for more than forty-eight hours. Contrary to popular belief, lice are not able to fly nor jump and are unlikely to wander from their preferred habitat. Lice do not carry disease nor do they cause physical harm but they are bothersome and can cause severe itching (which can lead to skin/scalp irritations) and sometimes loss of sleep. Head lice derive nutrients by blood-feeding. Eggs hatch after about eight days.

Head lice is usually easily treated through the use of chemical treatments called pediculicides, such as RID or NIX (www.headliceinfo.com). Directions should be followed carefully and because these products are pesticides, they should be used with caution. Persons who are pregnant, nursing, have allergies, epilepsy, asthma, or other medical conditions should consult a pharmacist or physician prior to applying pesticides to the scalp. After the application is complete, the hair should be combed with a very fine comb to remove every nit. All family members should be checked thoroughly for lice and nits, and while all infested family members should be treated simultaneously, only those with active lice or viable eggs should be treated. Wash bedding, recently worn clothing, and other fabric items such as stuffed animals in hot water and dry in a hot dryer. Then place the items in a plastic garbage bag and keep them sealed for seven to ten days before removing. Combs and brushes may be soaked in hot water for ten minutes. Thoroughly vacuum rugs and carpets. If multiple treatments are not successful, consult a physician for other treatment advice.

Recently, antibiotics for treatment of head lice have been discussed. However, it is still not a recommended practice as there is no medical evidence to support the claims that they are effective pesticulicides and their inappropriate usage only results in the spread of bacterial resistance, thereby diminishing the usefulness of these antibiotics.

There have also been rumors of the development of a drug which makes the blood "Ëśless tasty" to head lice, causing them to move on to another host. However, I could not locate any data on such a drug in my research of this topic. (This does not mean that such a drug does not exist, simply that I could not locate any information on it at this time.) And of course, better to eliminate the lice altogether than to simply pass them onto someone else.

Many people swear by old home remedies such as mayonnaise, olive oil, tree tea oil, and petroleum jelly. Some say you can even prevent head lice by pulling long hair back tightly in a ponytail and/or spraying lightly with hairspray. Others insist that these are merely old wives tales and do not work. Always consult a physician before applying any treatment and follow his/her directions carefully.

Many schools have what is referred to as a "A No-Nit Policy". This means that children found to be infested with viable eggs must be dismissed from school until the eggs have been removed. This doesn't mean that anyone thinks you and your family have poor hygiene or are bad parents. Head lice is an extremely common problem in the United States, especially among children. No one making an effort to eliminate the problem should be ashamed or embarrassed. It simply means that school officials must take into consideration the well-being of all children entrusted to their care. For more information on head lice, contact your pediatrician or family doctor.

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