Lice: The Vampires in your Heads

A closer look at a head louse. (photo credit from children.webmd.com)

Long hair is lovely to look at, but, difficult to maintain, especially with children. But if your child comes home from school scratching her/his  head and irritable, they have been, most likely, infected with head lice.

Head lice are most common in young children attending day care, preschool, or elementary school. Younger children often play together closely with more hair-to-hair contact, and may share brushes, hats, hair clips, and the like. Adults who live with children also have a higher risk of exposure to head lice.

Head lice are tiny six-legged insects that cling to the scalp and neck and feed on human blood. Each louse is about the size of a sesame seed and can be hard to spot. Lice eggs, called nits, are glued onto hairs near the scalp and can be even more difficult to see. They are called Pediculus humanus capitis and is easier to transmit compared to body lice  and crab lice which infest the skin and  the pubic area respectively.

Head lice commonly infest females more often than males because most females grow their hair long. Female lice lay nits – very small (less than half a pinhead in size) oval, white, or yellowish structures – that cling to the hair shaft near the scalp. In five to 10 days, these nits hatch into nymphs, which look like small adult lice. Nymphs feed on minute quantity of blood and become adults in about three weeks.

Head lice are transmitted by direct contact with an infected person or by contact with contaminated objects such as combs, caps, helmets, bed, couch, pillow, carpet, stuffed animals and other. They spread through direct head-to-head contact that allows the pests to crawl from one person’s hair into another’s. Lice can also survive for a short period on clothing or other personal items for two days, so a shared hairbrush can help a louse find a new host. Lice cannot jump or fly from one person to another.

How do you know if one  is infested?

Spotting a live louse or nymph is often the only sign of an infestation. The presence of nits alone doesn’t confirm an infestation. In many, head lice don’t cause any discomfort. Itching may occur, but this may start weeks or even months after the lice move in.

Should  you be worried?

Some epidemic diseases can be transmitted by lice (especially body lice) but outbreaks of these diseases are rare nowadays. For the most part, head lice infestation is annoying because it causes severe itching. It is  an  embarrassing condition, but it is otherwise, benign. The worst complication that it can cause is bacterial infection of the skin which may occur with constant scratching.

The itching associated with lice is caused by an allergic reaction to the bug bites. Frequent scratching may lead to sores or raw skin on the scalp. Although uncommon, sores related to scratching can become infected by skin bacteria.

What should be done if you find someone infested with a head lice?

Light infestation can be controlled by manual removal of lice and nits with the use of a special comb. In moderate to severe infestation, insecticidal shampoos containing pyrethrum or permethrin that are available  over the counter  in drug stores need to be applied.  The directions for applying these shampoos are usually in the product inserts  that come with the product, if  not printed on the package itself. Remember, though, that the active ingredients in these preparations are toxic hence the instructions for their use should be followed to a T.

Some claim that mayonnaise, white vinegar, or tea tree oil are effective natural remedies for head lice. Mayonnaise is said to smother lice if it’s applied thickly and kept on overnight under a shower cap. Vinegar is rumored to dissolve the glue that keeps nits stuck to the hair. No scientific evidence supporting these home remedies have surfaced yet, so they’re not recommended to be used as primary treatment.

Another important thing to remember in treating head lice infestation is to find who/what the source is. Find out who else in the family members or who among  your friends or your children’s friends have it so they can be simultaneously treated.

Aside from treating the infestation, the following should also be done:

  • Wash with soap and hot water (about 600 degrees celsius) all washable clothing, bed sheets and linens, stuffed toys and other textiles that the infested person wore or used within the last two days upon the discovery of the infestation and while treatment is ongoing.
  • If they can’t be immediately washed, store all used clothes linens, stuffed toys, etc. in a sealed plastic bag for two weeks.
  • Soak combs and brushes for an hour in rubbing alcohol or lysol , or wash and brush  with soap and hot water.
  • Vacuum the floor and furnitures.

With young children, there’s unfortunately very little you can do to ward off head lice. Kids will be kids, and when they put their heads together or share hair bows, there’s a very high chance for head lice to spread. The best thing to do is to examine your child’s hair and scalp regularly so you can catch an infestation early. Prompt treatment will help prevent the bugs from spreading.

Web References:

http://children.webmd.com/tc/lice-symptoms

http://children.webmd.com/ss/slideshow-lice-overview

http://www.cps.ca/english/statements/id/id08-06.htm