Not even supermodel Heidi Klum can avoid some of the not-so-pleasant ramifications of having four kiddos under the age of 12. Case in point: Getting head lice.
During a sit-down with Ellen DeGeneres recently, the Project Runway host, 42, addressed a recent lice infestation in her home that occurred after the school nurse discovered one of the little parasites in her daughter’s hair. She summed the experience up in one word: “horrible.” (“That’s why I didn’t hug her!” DeGeneres then cracked to the audience.)
Klum says this was the second time her family’s had an issue with the pesky critters—but that’s no big surprise. An estimated six to 12 million infestations occur every year in the United States among children ages 3 to 11, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Plus, new research has revealed that lice in at least 25 states now have genetic mutations that make them resistant to over-the-counter treatments.
Given the growing problem, we thought now’s as good of a time as any to share some myths and facts about head lice.
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Myth: They’re basically invisible
Klum mentioned how easy the bugs are to miss thanks to their tiny size. While she’s right on the money that lice are indeed difficult-to-spot insects, you can still often find them with the naked eye. A fully grown adult louse is about the size of a sesame seed.
If you do feel the sensation of itchiness or crawling on your scalp (that’s where head lice tend to reside, though, in rare severe cases, they can live on the eyebrows or eyelashes), the CDC also recommends using a fine-toothed comb or magnifying glass to look for any live bugs.
If you or your doctor don’t see any crawling lice, finding the eggs (called nits) firmly cemented close to the base of the hair shafts typically suggests that you’ve got them and should be treated, the CDC states.
Fact: Schools can be a hotbed for lice
When Degeneres asked Klum how she got them, she replied without skipping a beat, “Kids! They get them at school!” And this time, she’s totally right. Children are in fact more inclined to get lice at school, camps, sports outings and sleepovers where more head-to-head contact occurs, allowing the lice to spread, according to the CDC.
Fact: You’re less likely to get head lice from adults
Don’t fear a neighborhood cocktail party—or a talk show visit—just because there’s a lice infestation in your little ones’ school. Though DeGeneres jokingly questioned why Klum wouldn’t just opt out of her appearance and stay home instead, there’s less of a chance you’ll catch them from your mom friends or co-workers.
Why? “Presumably because adults simply don’t engage in the same level of head-to-head contact,” said Dr. Seth Orlow, who specializes in pediatric dermatology at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
But it was smart for the duo to skip the big hug for risk of touching scalps. Direct person-to-person contact is key (adults, too!), he explains, because lice crawl from scalp to scalp. However, don’t be fooled by anyone who says they can leap. “They can sure crawl fast, but they can’t jump,” he adds. (Another fun fact: Your pets can’t get head lice.)
Myth: A head lice infestation is a sign of “dirtiness”
Actually, head lice are not associated with poor hygiene at all. “They are equal opportunity parasites,” Orlow said. Clean or dirty hair, “all they want is some warm blood and a place to mate and lay their eggs,” he adeded (Shudder.)
Myth: Kids with lice can’t go to school
Contrary to popular belief, quarantining yourself isn’t really necessary. In fact, new guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics in April say that children found to have head lice can finish the school day, be treated and then return to school the next day.
There are a few reasons why. For one, a nit that is more than a quarter-inch from the hair shaft likely won’t hatch into a louse, or it may just be an egg shell casing. Also, nits that are strongly glued to the hair shafts also unlikely to successfully transfer to someone else.
Orlow said, “The point is not to throw [kids] out of school but rather to have them get treated at home that evening.”
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Myth: You need to take drastic measures to get rid of them
Even with the growing resistance to over-the-counter treatments, you don’t need to panic—or spend a ton of money—to rid your kids (and yourself) of these pests.
“There are these fairies that come to the house and brush you for hours and get all these lice out of your hair,” Klum told Degeneres. These “lice fairies” are a real thing; there are professional picker businesses—such as the Lice Lady in Westchester, N.Y. and Hair Fairies, based in New York City—who use special products and tools to remove lice and nits from the head. But they’re really not necessary.
“Some people who have the money and time can hire someone to pick every louse and nit off their child’s head,” Orlow said. “But when it comes to effectiveness, I’ll vote for one of several available prescription pediculicides,” aka pesticides for lice that are safe for use on kids.
That said, you should also be skeptical of home remedies like attempting to drown lice in mayonaise or olive oil. There’s no scientific evidence that those work. It’s “messy for sure; effective—not so much,” Orlow said.
The bottom line with head lice: Don’t freak out if you or your children get it. Yes, they’re gross and itchy, but they are not harmful to your health. “Keep ait in perspective,” Orlow concluded. “Yes, it’s an annoyance, and one we can cure.”