‘Tis the Season — For Head Lice

There are some things in life that are as certain as death and taxes; communicable illnesses shared among school children, and sometimes, the sharing of the common parasite, head lice. Prevention, early detection and treatment are essential to stopping the cycle of head lice infestations.

Pediculosis capitis, or head lice, have been around since the history of mankind has been recorded – and make their appearance most often in school-aged children throughout the school year. Savvy parents begin to check for the signs and symptoms of head lice early in the school year and continue to do so periodically to stop an infestation in its tracks and prevent the spread of head lice to other family members through person-to-person contact, the most common method of transmission.

Head lice are parasitic insects seeking human hosts. Having head lice is not an indication of poor hygiene – a myth that has furthered the stigma of having head lice.

In times past, schools alerted the parents of other children in the classroom when one child was found to have head lice. Not so anymore for the stated reason that head lice are not a life-threatening condition, but also because of the stigma still attached to having head lice. Pointing out a single child or children leaves them open to bullying and being ostracized by others, something that can impact that child’s life now and in the future.

This makes vigilance at home even more important than in the past – to detect any head lice issues in the home and take treatment measures sooner than later.

Nurse Consultant Christine Brown Demonstrates How to Check for Head Lice:

Head lice feed on the blood of their human host, leaving behind tiny bites, most often found on the neck or over/behind the ears. Head lice are not spread by cats, dogs or other pets.

What Does a Head Louse Look Like?

Head lice – or a single insect, is called a louse, are two to three millimeters long and tan or greenish in color. When checking for head lice, you may not see the actual insect as they move very quickly and avoid the light.

The egg, or nit, of the female louse may be easier to spot because the female adheres each nit to an individual hair shaft about four millimeters from the scalp. This makes it easier to differentiate the small whitish nit from dandruff because the nit will be difficult to remove from the hair shaft unlike dandruff, which is not attached to hair.

Head lice crawl, but they do not jump or fly.

How Are Head Lice Spread?

  • The most common method for the spread of head lice is direct contact of someone who has head lice and another person. This is why family members and children who are friends with one another are the most likely to spread head lice from one person to another.
  • A less likely, but still possible, method of spreading head lice is through items that the person who has head lice touches with his/her head such as hair brushes, pillowcases, hats, head scarves, combs, upholstery, towels, headphones and more.
  • An even less common but possible method of the spread of head lice is through the even more indirect method of storing the above-mentioned articles together, where one article touches another.

The Life Cycle of Head Lice

In order to best treat and guard against future head lice infestation, it’s important to know the life cycle of the head louse:

  • Each nit hatches after about eight or nine days
  • After hatching, the nymph grows into an adult louse within nine to 12 days
  • The adult louse lives for three to four weeks.

This life cycle, spanning up to 21 days for an individual nit to hatch and become an adult louse capable of producing future nits and beginning the cycle all over again, points to the importance of getting rid of all nits on the child’s or adult’s head who has head lice. Missing one or two nits initially can allow a new cycle of head lice to begin.

Head lice die within 2 days if they fall off a person and lose their source of blood for feeding. Nits that had adhered to a hair that has been shed generally die within a week if they are not kept at the ideal temperature for hatching that is found next to the human scalp.

Prevention and Control Strategies for Head Lice

In addition to the home remedies, over-the-counter or prescription products used to treat head lice on the person, there are activities suggested by public health experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent the spread or re-infestation of head lice within your home:

  • Avoid head-to-head contact both at school, day care, at home or any gathering of people
  • A temperature of at least 130 degrees F must be used to disinfect combs and brushes and to wash bedding, clothing or other washable items with which the person who had lice had contact with during the two days before treatment.
  • Any items such as stuffed animals or other non-washable items can either be dry cleaned or stored in a closed plastic bag for two weeks.
  • Avoid laying on furniture, pillows or other areas that the person with lice had laid or sat upon before treatment.
  • Vacuum upholstery and floors
  • Avoid use of sprays or fogs – they are not necessary to control head lice and present the potential of being toxic if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.


Your health care provider, local health department or pharmacist can answer any questions you may have about head lice and their treatment and prevention. Always consult with your health care provider before applying chemical treatments to the head of young children.

The information provided here is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

Feature Image courtesy of Counselling at Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

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  1. Lin Jenkinson

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