Lose the lice: How to prevent and treat head lice in your family

Friday, August 3, 2012
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If you remember having head checks from the school nurse, you probably remember there was a certain amount of shame attached to being sent home with head lice. It's an embarrassing problem, but it has nothing to do with personal hygiene or cleanliness in the home or school, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Lice -- tiny insects that lay eggs, or nits, in the hair -- are transmitted by head-to-head contact. It's most common in young children, as they're likely to be in close contact as they play together and go to sleepovers, says Kim Keser, a family nurse practitioner at Cape Primary Care. Head lice can also be transmitted by sharing hats, hair accessories, brushes or combs, though this is less common: Lice feed on blood and can live about 30 days on a person's head, but they die within a day or two after falling off a person, says the CDC.

The most common head lice complaint is itchiness, which may also cause difficulty sleeping. Sometimes people get small red bumps on the scalp that crush and then ooze. Excessive scratching may cause additional issues.

"When something itches we scratch it, but we have staph on our fingertips that can get into the tissue," says Keser. "That can cause staph infections. We all have staph on our hands."

The best thing you can do to avoid head lice is to check your kids' hair frequently and make sure they're not sharing items that are worn or used on their heads, says Keser.

To check for head lice, put on a pair of rubber gloves, part the hair into sections and examine hair at the base, looking for eggs. They're white or yellowish, oval-shaped and about the size of a knot in thread, according to the CDC. They should be easy to see without a magnifying glass.

"They look like dandruff," says Keser. "If you rub your head, dandruff flakes off easily, but with head lice, the eggs, or nits, stay connected."

If you find lice or nits on one person, the entire family will need to be treated -- and the sooner the better, says Keser.

"The quicker the treatment occurs, the easier it is to control," she says. "Sometimes it's hard to eradicate, especially with long hair."

Keser says over-the-counter treatments like Nix and 1 Percent Permethrin are very effective. Do the treatment and recheck the hair in eight to 12 hours, using a fine-tooth comb. You'll also need to change and wash all bedding in hot water, wash all clothes worn recently and sterilize all items used on the head.

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