Itchy, Itchy, Scratchy, Scratchy – The Lowdown on Lice

School is back in full swing bringing children together along with some unwelcome pests. Here a local pediatrician offers tips on how to keep your sanity when your child comes home with lice.

It’s the moment all parents dread – a call from your child’s school informing that they have head lice. If your head starts itching just thinking about these creepy crawlies, you’re not alone. In the U.S. up to 12 million children between the ages of 3-11 are infected yearly. Those stats are enough to send most parents into panic mode, but before you decide to buzz cut little Johnny read on for tips from Dr. Elizabeth Kirlis, a pediatrician with Coastal Pediatric Associates, on how to manage lice while keeping your sanity.

How Lice Spread

First, a little good news when it comes to lice. These tiny bugs cannot fly or jump. Instead, lice are spread by direct head-to-head contact with someone who already has head lice – picture two kids leaned together over an iPad or studying the same book. Catching lice from hats, brushes and coats is less common. And, what about the idea that it’s the grungy kids who are spreading lice? “That’s a myth,” says Dr. Kirlis. “You often hear that head lice comes from being dirty, when in reality lice like clean hair – it is easier for them to adhere to. Personal hygiene or cleanliness in the home or school has nothing to do with getting head lice.”

Identifying Lice

If you notice your child scratching their head a lot, it could be lice. “Itching is the most common symptom of head lice. Any child with redness, itching or sores around the ears and back of their scalp should be evaluated for head lice,” stresses Dr. Kirlis.

So, during a lice check what should you look for? “Identification of head lice can be difficult,” warns Kirlis. “The greyish, sesame seed sized adults can move quickly and may not be easily seen. Nits are the eggs that adult lice lay – they are easier to visualize (especially after they have hatched) and are typically tightly adhered to the hair shaft.”

Mother treating daughter's hair against lice

Treating Lice

In most cases you can use an over-the counter treatment to get rid of lice. To ensure success, follow the treatment’s directions carefully. If the treatment advises applying a second treatment, be sure to do so at the suggested time. In a few geographic areas, lice have developed a resistance to over-the-counter treatments. If it does not work, you should contact your child’s doctor who may recommend a prescription lice treatment.

To prevent the spread of lice to other family members Dr. Kirlis recommends treating everyone in the home that is known to be infected as well as anyone who has slept in the same bed or has symptoms. You should also wash all of the sheets and towels used within the past 48 hours in hot water and dry them on high heat. You may also need to vacuum the furniture and bag up and isolate any potentially infected stuffed animals for two weeks.

Can My Child Go to School with Lice?

Having lice is not a reason to keep your child home from school says Dr. Kirlis. “Your child may have had head lice for weeks before they were diagnosed. Once you confirm your child has lice, treat them immediately, but continue to send them to school,” says Dr. Kirlis. Some schools do have policies about lice and school attendance. You can check with the school nurse to determine your child’s school policy.

It Will Be OK

“Everyone gets upset about lice,” says Dr. Kirlis. “Take a deep breath and remind yourself that they are treatable and they will go away.” Also, keep in mind that the typical lice infestation is not dangerous and that they do not spread disease. “My best advice to parents is to stay calm and their kids will be calm too.”