What It Is
Head lice have become an increasingly prevalent problem in our nation's schools and child-care centers, according to the American Head Lice Information Center. Some 12 million people are infected with lice each year, most of them children between the ages of 3 and 12. Although head lice never present a serious health threat, they are a major annoyance. Whether you're trying to help your child avoid these bugs altogether, or just trying to get rid of them, you'll want to read the answers to these frequently asked questions.
What are head lice?
Head lice are tiny, translucent, brown- or gray-colored mites that have plagued humankind since ancient Egypt (lice larvae have been found on mummies). Because they're so small, lice are hard to detect without a magnifying glass. They live on the scalp and feed by drawing blood through the scalp, causing inflammation and itching. Adult female lice lay about six to ten eggs per day, which cling to the hair, causing your child's head to become a breeding ground for the pesky bugs.
How are lice spread?
Contrary to popular belief, lice don't fly or jump, but they can move very fast. According to Kate Shepherd, founder of Lice Solutions Inc., a group in Jupiter, Florida, that provides lice education, a louse can travel nine inches in one minute. To get from one head to another, it will grasp onto a strand of hair with its six hooked legs and ride over to the new host. Lice are spread most easily by direct person-to-person contact. This is often the case when children touch their heads together during play. Lice also can be spread indirectly, when kids share combs or brushes, pillows, or head gear such as hats or helmets.
Does personal hygiene play a role in whether a child gets head lice?
According to James Herbert, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician in San Angelo, Texas, "It doesn't matter how clean you are; if your child is exposed to someone with head lice, she has a pretty good chance of getting it herself. There are cases of families with very good hygiene who are just devastated when they learn their child has lice," he says. "The child's whole classroom might be exposed, but they're still embarrassed when it happens to them."