As kids return to school, it pays to be prepared for a potential lice infestation. Every year, the wingless parasites infest 6 million to 12 million children ages 3 to 11, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Kids often get it in September because they are back in school or have recently returned from summer camp," says Sally Kelly, R.N., a school nurse who makes lice-removal house calls in and around Chatham, New Jersey. Being informed about the signs of head lice allows you to start treatment ASAP, which may prevent spreading the bugs to family, peers, or the community.
Despite common misconception, lice are not effective jumpers, according to Alan Greene, MD, FAAP. In most cases direct contact is needed to transmit lice; this often occurs when children touch heads while playing. Lice can also spread by sharing a contaminated hair brush, car seat, stuffed animal, pillow, helmet, or other item.
Lice live on the human scalp, where they feed on blood several times a day. In fact, the insects can only survive two days without being attached to a host. Oval-shaped eggs, called nits, are yellow and white – and they’re so small parents often mistake them for dandruff. A female louse can lay up to eight eggs per day, firmly cementing them to the hair shaft less than 1 centimeter from the scalp. The eggs hatch in about a week, and their dull-yellow shells remain on the hair shaft.
A newly-hatched nymph looks like an adult head louse, but it's about the size of a pinhead. The nymphs become adults in about a week, growing to the size of a sesame seed and boasting six clawed legs. Head lice are tan to grayish-white in color, and they can live up to 30 days on a child's head.
The most obvious head lice symptom is nits or bugs on the scalp. If your child was exposed to lice, examine her head with a nit comb (we recommend the LiceMeister comb). The light-sensitive bugs will probably scramble away as soon as you see them. "They crawl fast," Kelly says. "They're not like a tick that just sits there feeding. It's easier to find the nits, so look for those first. Nits are more likely to be within 1 centimeter of the scalp; if they're farther from the scalp than that, they're almost always hatched or dead.”
As another head lice symptom, most infected child also complain of an itchy scalp and neck, which is caused by an allergic reaction to louse saliva. Some people can have lice for months before they start to itch, since the allergy takes time to develop as lice lay three to ten eggs per day. That’s why parents should always examine a child’s head after learning of a lice infestation at school – even if he’s not itching.
Other head lice symptoms include small red bumps on the infected area, sores from itching, and a tickling feeling from lice movement. Difficulty sleeping and irritability may also result from the incessant itching.
If you’ve determined your child has lice, start treatment ASAP. Options include louse and nit combing, over-the-counter medications, prescriptions, natural DIY remedies, and more. Learn how to treat head lice in this article.