Symptoms, Signs And Treatment: What Are Head Lice?

Head lice are a common affliction of young school-age children, and offer a minor nuisance to parents and teachers alike. They are, however, easily treatable.

Head lice are a common concern of parents and school-workers alike, as early school-age children are their most common hosts. This is not by any obvious sign a natural preference so much as it is a result of the play habits of children of this age; close contact, such as that found on the playground, is the only real method of louse transmission, and children are slower to recognize symptoms of infestation or to report excessive itching to parents or caretakers.

The head louse (Pediculosis capitis) is only about two to four millimeters in length, but is generally visible to the naked eye as a small white speck which moves about the scalp when its surface is agitated with a comb or hand. The actual damage done by the louse is negligible; while it does feed on the blood it draws from the skin of the scalp, it does not draw a significant quantity (as should be obvious from its size), and being relatively confined to a small number of hosts, it is not thought to carry a great deal of disease, as compared to the flea or mosquito which are highly mobile and may feed upon a great number of individuals. However, irritation is likely to occur at points of feeding on the scalp's surface, which over time will cause in many hosts an itch disproportionate to that caused by dandruff or other factors that may irritate the scalp. The eggs, or nits of the louse are rooted in the hair of the scalp, and are killed with the same medications used to destroy the lice themselves.

A louse can only live outside the comfort of a host scalp for a short time, and pretty much any lice found on clothing, linens, hats or furniture are dead or dying. The rate of transmission through an intermediary object is pretty low, so usually the culprit is direct, close-quarters contact. Because of this, head lice aren't really indicative of poor personal hygiene. Don't blame your child or yourself for the contraction of head lice, because there's really no reason. Long hair is not a major risk factor, either, though girls are somewhat more likely to come down with head lice than boys. It is supposed that this is actually more the result of their greater tendency toward close play.


The best method of prevention is to avoid or separate those who have head lice until they've been treated, but paranoia is not really necessary. Head louse infestation is a really only a minor inconvenience, and is entirely and conveniently treatable. Many sources recommend consulting a physician. This is your prerogative. Medicated shampoos are available at grocery and drug stores at nominal cost, and can end the infestation within hours; itching may continue for a few days, at most. Repeat treatment may be necessary, depending upon the chances for re-infestation, and usually it is recommended that it occur about a week after the initial washing. To be most thorough, one may wash clothing and linens in hot water (130C+), but it is very rarely necessary. If any family members show signs of infestation, treating them quickly will prevent the additional spread of the lice, and will prevent reinfestation in others who have already been treated--while the lice will not survive long off a host, they will spread from one to the next and back again with little difficulty. Treatments kill the lice already on a host, but they can't keep them off for long if there is a source of reinfestation.

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