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 between the ages of 3 and 12. And although head lice isn’t a serious medical problem, it proves annoying for parents, teachers, and students alike. Here are some head lice prevention techniques to stave off a pesky infestation.
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 skin, 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 bugs.
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.
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."
If you’ve discovered a lice infestation in your child’s daycare or classroom, here are some head lice prevention methods to implement into your daily life.
1. Don’t Touch Heads: Lice are spread most easily by direct person-to-person contact. This is often the case when children touch their heads together during play. Talk to your kid about the risk of lice, and warn him not to come into contact with another child’s head.
2. Keep Belongings To Yourself: Lice also can be spread indirectly when kids share combs or brushes, pillows, or head gear such as hats or helmets. Tell your kid not to borrow these items from others, and separate personal belongings as much as possible in the classroom.
3. Sanitize Your Possessions: Head lice can't survive away from a human scalp for more than 48 hours or at temperatures above 120 degrees. You can use these weaknesses against them when cleaning your house and possessions. For instance, soak all hairbrushes, combs, and hair ornaments that might’ve been exposed to lice in hot (not boiling) water. Wash all stuffed animals, bed linens, towels, and recently worn clothing in hot water, and place them in the dryer on a high-heat setting. Items that can't be washed or dried in this manner can be dry-cleaned or stored in sealed plastic bags for several days.
4. Wash Your Hair with Anti-Lice Shampoo: Anti-lice shampoos claim to fend away infestations, since lice are repelled by their scent. Many of these shampoos contain essential oils; popular options are lavender oil, tea tree oil, and coconut. You can find these anti-lice shampoos at many natural stores; alternatively, consider making your own by mixing small amount of essential oils into your existing shampoo.
5. Do Your Research: Spotting a lice infestation early can save your family from the annoying bugs. Perform routine head checks on your children to search for the tiny mites, which are found most often in the hair above the ears and at the back of the head, just above the neck. More visible though, are the tiny white nits that are found on the hair shaft, just above the scalp. They look like dandruff, but aren't flaky and are difficult to remove. If you are uncertain of what you're searching for, ask your child's school nurse or your pediatrician to show you what a nit looks like.
6. Watch Out for Yourself, Too! Because parents aren't likely to share hats, combs, clothing, and other items – or to come into direct head-to-head contact – they're unlikely to become infected with lice. "We don't see parents with lice very often, and only occasionally will we even see siblings with it," says Dr. Herbert. Still, if your child does become infected with lice, it's a good idea to have another adult inspect your head just to make sure they haven't taken up residence.