How to prevent and treat head lice

Head lice is one of those things every mother hopes and prays won’t happen to her kid. Although lice don’t carry diseases or are harmful in any way, getting rid of them for good can be tough, not to mention dealing with the ick factor in the process.

The good news is that if your child does get head lice, there are easy, stress-free ways to nix them fast and keep them from spreading.

How do kids get head lice?

Although head lice have been around for thousands of years, they’ve become more of an issue in recent years as treatment-resistant “super-lice” have been identified in 25 states.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 12 million children get lice each year. Those most at risk are children between the ages of 3 and 10 and moms because they’re often in close contact, said Claire Roberts, CEO of Lice Clinics of America, based inSalt Lake City, Utah.

Kids often transfer lice to each other while playing together, on the athletic field or locker room, or even from the foam pit at gymnastics class.

“Schools are one of the greatest resources for spotting it and communicating the issue to parents because they take on that responsibility,” Roberts said. “But that’s not where kids are snuggling the most.”

In May, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report which recommends schools eliminate their “no nit” policy, which required a child be free of nits before they can return to school. Under their recommendation, if a child has head lice, they should finish the school day, get treatment and return to school.

A common misconception about head lice is that it’s a result of poor hygiene. The reality however, is that lice are human parasites that require human blood to survive and are transferred from head to head.

The lice eggs, or “nits,”themselves are not contagious, but it’s the adult active lice that are. Once the eggs are laid— on the hair shaft, close to the scalp— they have 7 to 10 days until they hatch. If they’re not removed before they hatch, baby lice or nymphs become adult lice within 1 to 2 weeks and leave the eggshell behind.

Although you can see the eggs, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to see the live lice unless there’s a severe infestation. The eggs are clear or white and unlike dandruff, you won’t be able to pull it off with your fingers.

Additionally, although many children will scratch the back of their heads or around their ears, many show no signs of lice because they’re not allergic to the lice saliva which causes itchiness, said Stacey Pomerantz, partner and owner of Fairy LiceMothers in Austin, Tex.

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How to treat head lice

Be vigilant.

If you can find lice early, it’s much easier to get rid of them quickly and prevent it from turning into a large infestation, Pomerantz said. Check your child’s scalp at bath time or when brushing her hair with a special nit comb. Also, ask your child’s school to notify you if there are reported cases of head lice.

Treat it— stat.

If you choose to treat your child at home, you must remove both the lice and the eggs.  Although there are over-the-counter products and prescription medications available, there is not one product on the market that has 100 percent ovicidal effects on the eggs, meaning it will kill all the eggs, Pomerantz said.

You’ll need a nit comb with microgrooves that can wrap around the hair strands and drag everything off. You also have to comb the hair strand by strand for two weeks to make sure all of the nits are completely gone.

There are however, professional centers that offer natural, effective treatments and do all of the hard work for you.

Clean, but don’t go overboard.

Head lice can survive off the scalp for up to two days but you don’t have to call in a cleaning crew to prevent it from spreading to other family members. Pesticide sprays for furniture are not necessary, but it’s a good idea to vacuum carpets, couches and car seats. Since lice don’t burrow like bed bugs, you can put a sheet on your couch for 24 hours to create a barrier.

Extreme heat and cold temperatures kill lice, so throw pillows, blankets, stuffed animals and hats in the dryer for 30 minutes in high heat. Wash and boil hairbrushes, combs and hair clips and put helmets in a bag and leave it in the freezer for several hours.

Spread the word.

Although there is a stigma attached to head lice and many parents and kids are embarrassed to admit they have it, it’s important to tell other parents to keep it from spreading.

“Being open and honest with people in your world means you’re going to get rid of it all at the same time,” Pomerantz said.