When students return to school, so does the issue of head lice.
These creatures have adapted quite well to societies throughout the world. Children are most commonly affected from interaction with other students, as well as the use of shared combs, headphones and beds.
Officially called Pediculosis capitis, this condition is second only to the common cold as the most common communicable illness in school children.
Lice are not dangerous and do not spread disease, and socioeconomic status is not a great factor in the occurrence of this condition. Girls are affected more commonly than boys, but hair length has not been reported as a factor.
The head louse is an insect between 3 and 4 millimeters in length, with a lifespan of about one month. The female deposits eggs in a sack, which is cemented firmly to the base of a hair follicle. These attached eggs, called nits, will hatch in eight days. They rapidly mature and soon begin feeding on blood through the scalp. They do not jump, fly or live on our pets.
The main symptom of lice infestation is an itchy scalp. The diagnosis is made by identifying the lice or nits, with the nits more visible than the actual lice. They are tan when they contain live eggs, white when they are empty. The back of the scalp above the neck is the most likely place to find evidence of head lice.
There are several ways to treat head lice. The most natural method is called wet combing, a welcome alternative to insecticides and the safest treatment for those younger than 2 years old. Combing is performed with a fine-tooth comb. The hair should be wet, with an added lubricant such as a hair conditioner or olive oil. Combing is done until no lice and nits are found. Repeated combing can be done every 3 or 4 days for several weeks.
For children older than 2, the most effective method for treating head lice is the use of topical insecticides. The most commonly used is Permethrin cream rinse (1 percent), sold over the counter by the name Nix. This is a relatively safe product when used as directed. The scalp should be shampooed, rinsed with water and towel-dried. Then Nix is applied and allowed to remain in the hair for 10 minutes before being washed out with water. A second treatment may be given in seven to 10 days if live lice (not nits alone) remain. Hair should still be combed to remove nits.
Washing contaminated clothing and bedding is also important. Lice can survive free from the scalp for up to two days, so vacuuming carpets and furniture is helpful.
The most common causes of ineffective treatment are not following through with the treatment and continued contact with others who are infested. Household members should be inspected and treated if necessary.
Our local schools have a “No Nits” policy, meaning that students remain out of school until all nits are gone from the scalp. This again demonstrates the importance of combing nits out of the hair.
Still, there is no need to panic about head lice. This condition can be cured with proper treatment and patience. If all your efforts seem in vain, see your health provider for more help.
At a glance
For an excellent Web site for more detailed information, especially regarding nit removal, visit http://www.doh.wa.gov/publicat/paperpubs/lice.htm.