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Everything You Hope To Never Have To Know About Head Lice

Information about how to prevent and treat head lice.

Since this is my first blog post, I believe a little introduction is appropriate. My name is Erin Taback, resident of the Chicago area since 1996 and Oak Park since 2005, the mother of a seven-year old daughter and five-year old son, and a practicing pediatrician in Oak Park since 2000 (I recently opened Oak Park Pediatrics on Chicago Ave). I welcome your feedback and ideas for future posts, so please do not hesitate to contact me.

My first blog post is about one of the ever-present pests impacting our children — head lice. Unfortunately, no family (not even my own) is immune to this potential problem. Twice in the past six months my seven-year-old daughter has fallen victim to head lice. We discovered the first instance 20 minutes before leaving to the airport at the end our Thanksgiving vacation in Florida. We stopped at a pharmacy on the way to the airport, and I began treating her as soon as we got home. About a month ago head lice made a return visit to my daughter and we underwent the treatment process all over again.

For starters, head lice are most common in pre-school and school age children. They are also more prevalent in girls than boys (long hair v. short hair). Often the lice have been present for a few weeks before being found, which makes discovering them that much more stressful. However, head lice are not an indicator of disease or other health concerns. So in reality, they are nothing more than a nuisance.

How to Identify Head Lice

You have to look hard for lice, as they are very small - about the size of a sesame seed. Live lice are found on the scalp, behind the ears, and at the nape of the neck. Their nits (or eggs), attach to the hair shaft and can be found usually within an inch or so from the hair root. Nits tend to be silver-grey to tan in color. I included some pictures so you can better visualize what to look for – what is on the Q-tip is a louse and the other picture shows you what nits looks like.

How to Treat Head Lice

Once you have located head lice, step number one is to check other family members to see who else needs to be treated. As for the treatment itself, many pediatricians recommend an over-the-counter medicated shampoo such as Rid or Nix. These shampoos are supposed to kill the lice as well as the nits, but do not always get the job done because over time head lice have become more resistant to their active ingredients. Thus, in my case I chose to use a newer prescription product that contains benzyl alcohol (Ulesfia) which I found effective.

For those of you who would prefer to use natural products rather than chemicals, home remedies such as mayonnaise, Vaseline, and olive oil have been found to smother lice. However, they can be messy and have not always proven to be effective. Tea tree, lavender, and peppermint oils are popular botanical treatments commonly found in many of the non-medicated herbal lice shampoos and sprays available over the internet and at beauty stores and lice removal salons. Some medical studies conclude that these botanicals are just as, if not more, effective than traditional lice remedies such as Rid or Nix. These shampoos are thus excellent options for treating head lice.

Regardless of what you decide to put in your child’s hair, the only way to ensure the eradication of head lice is to check your child's hair daily until it is "clean," and "nit pick" all of the remaining nits attached to the hair before they are able to hatch and re-infest your child. While "nit picking" can be a difficult and tedious process if your child is young or unwilling to cooperate, it is an essential part of treating head lice and cannot be ignored. If any of this goes beyond what you feel comfortable handling, you can always “outsource” the task of eradicating head lice by going to a hair salon that specializes in this process (a local option, Hair Butterflies, recently opened on N. Marion Street).

Common Questions

A common question is whether the house needs a complete cleaning once you discover that head lice have paid a visit to your house? While I can tell you from personal experience that a complete cleaning helps ease the mind, lice rarely live off the scalp for more than 48 hours. So while it makes sense to change the sheets, clean the towels, vacuum the house and address such sanitary items as hair brushes, headbands and barrettes, there is no need to go overboard.

Another common question is how do lice spread from person to person? Despite what many believe, head lice do not jump from head to head. Rather, they most commonly spread directly through close contact — something apparently our children do a lot of on the playground, soccer/baseball field, gymnastics center, etc. Thus, once you discover head lice you do not have to “quarantine” your child. However, until you get the situation under control your child should avoid activities where they can come in close contact with other people.

Prevention

Finally, all good medicine is no medicine at all - prevention. To prevent head lice, teach your child not to share hats, combs, brushes, headband, barrettes, helmets, or any other head gear. If your daughter has long hair, keep it pulled back in a ponytail when an outbreak occurs in the area. Consider using a tea tree or peppermint oil shampoo weekly and check your child for early infestation by using a louse comb regularly to detect lice and nits.

Hopefully you never have to experience all that comes along with discovering that your child has head lice. If you do, treat the condition immediately and properly and your life should get back to normal within a couple of days.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

david bradford May 31, 2011 at 11:56 PM
Dr. Taback, A terrific overview on lice! Thanks for mentioning Ulesfia, David
Mary Aspinwall August 17, 2011 at 08:39 PM
Thanks so much Erin for this great summary. I would add the Bugbusting Method (a comb set with life cycle breaking instructions) from Community Hygiene concern a non-profit in the UK. Also the homeopathic remedy Staphisagria in 30c.

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