Dealing with head lice

    Q: One of my child’s classmates was just diagnosed with head lice. How can I keep my child from getting them?

    Parents see plenty of leaking diapers, exploding spit-up and goopy noses. But nothing quite prepares you for the words “your child has lice.” And now that Seamus has started going to preschool two mornings a week, I’m a little nervous about those little critters. I remember well having to deal with them years ago with both Taylor and Zach.

    Head lice, officially dubbed Pediculus humanus capitis, are parasitic insects that live on the human head. They’ve been around for more than 9,000 years, according to Craig Levy, program manager for the vector-borne disease program at the Arizona Department of Health Services.

    Six to 12 million people are affected each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and lice can strike anywhere, even in the cleanest homes with the most fastidious families. Lice infestation is an “equal opportunity” problem, says Levy.

    The CDC notes that children ages 3 to 10 are affected most often, and lists the following symptoms:

    •  a tickling feeling of something moving in the hair
    • itching caused by an allergic reaction to the bites
    • sores from scratching
    • irritability

    Lice most often settle behind the ears and at the nape of the neck, and vary in appearance according to whether they are in nit, nymph or adult form.

    Nits are lice eggs that are easily mistaken for dandruff or hair spray mist. They are oval shaped and white or yellow in color and take about a week to hatch into baby head lice. These nymphs look like smaller versions of adult head lice. They feed on blood and mature to adult form in a week or so.

    The adult louse is about the size of a sesame seed and appears gray or tan in color. It clings to human hair, using the hook-like claws on its six disgusting little legs. Adult lice can hang around for up to a month, but die within a day or two of falling off the scalp.

    Lice don’t fly or hop from head to head. Here’s how they spread:

    • Person-to-person contact. Lice travel between scalps – during slumber parties, classes, recess, camp. Lice don’t cling to pets.
    • Through clothing or personal-care items. Lice spread when infested kids share hats, scarves, clothing, towels, combs or brushes.
    • Through shared furniture or household items. Lice live on carpets, rugs, beds, couches, pillows or stuffed animals recently used by infested individuals.

    If you suspect your child has head lice, check his or her head carefully, especially within one-quarter inch of the scalp. Your pediatrician can confirm your suspicions and offer tips on the best treatment options.

    Traditional treatment involves washing your child’s hair with a product specifically designed to control lice. There are several different brands on the market. Be sure to follow instructions on the label, urges Levy. Apply a second treatment seven to 10 days later to catch any leftover pests.

    In between, you’ll have to faithfully pick the nits from your child’s scalp with a special nit comb. Work in small sections using good lighting and repeat the process several times during the week.

    Not into nit picking? You can hire someone like Michele Earl of Phoenix to do it for you. Six years ago, after lice latched onto her now 13-year-old daughter Hayley, Earl founded her company, A Gift of Nature, with fellow mom Cindy Kerkmeyer of Phoenix. You can call for an at-home lice removal; (602) 558-4646. And if you’re leary of traditional lice-control products, the pair developed their own alternative treatment and began spreading the word through their website, Total Lice Control.

    They’ll cheerfully take care of the nit picking for you, which can take up to two or three hours when done properly. “Most kids are much better for us than (for) their parents,” Earl observes.

    Some parents swear by mayonnaise or their own homemade concoctions. Levy suggests that parents considering a non-traditional option look at whether there is reliable research to support its use and take steps to avoid other potential problems – such as bacterial growth from products left in the hair too long.

    “Beware of gimmicks,” cautions Earl. Not all alternative treatments are safe or effective. Your child’s doctor can help you weigh the options – many of which are explained in detail on websites like and

    Take steps to kill any lice that have recently fallen or crawled off your child’s scalp. Experts suggest you:

    • Machine wash all clothing and linens used by the infested person in the past two days. Use hot water and set your dryer to “high.”
    • Dry clean items that can’t be washed, or seal them in a plastic bag for two weeks
    • Wash combs and brushes in hot water or soak in rubbing alcohol or Lysol.
    • Vacuum furniture and floors rather than using pesticides in your home.

    It’s a hassle. But careful treatment and nit picking are the only effective ways to banish lice. “Parents always look for a quick and easy magic bullet,” says Levy. “But there isn’t one.”

    “You really have to put time, money and effort into it the first time,” insists Levy. It’s the only way to lose lice that long to linger.