What to do if your child is infected with head lice
It's a nightmare to a parent when their child comes home with head lice. Treating the problem is timely and frustrating - mostly because once it is gone it can come back time and again.
Head lice are parasitic insects that spread readily from one human to another through direct skin contact. Children, particularly those in elementary school who play in close contact with each other, are easily susceptible to lice.
How to Find Head Lice
The most common symptom associated with head lice is an itchy scalp. If you notice your child frequently scratching his or her head, check for lice.
At times, children can become infected and not complain of itching. It's common practice for schools to warn parents of a lice outbreak. If the school notifies you of an outbreak, check your child often, even if you don't see any noticeable symptoms.
Begin by inspecting the scalp, nape of the neck and areas behind the ears. Look for small white or yellowish-brown specks attached to the hair - these are called nits or eggs. Dandruff can sometimes be confused with lice, but dandruff is easily removed by flicking, while lice and their eggs are not so easily dislodged.
This is a two step process. First, adult lice must be killed. A specially formulated shampoo or lotion called a pediculicide is recommended. These shampoos can be purchased over-the-counter and are specifically labeled for use on people. Nix® and Rid® are two examples of over the counter treatments.
Consult your pharmacist or pediatrician before using any of these products since they may not be recommended for small children, children with certain illnesses and conditions or pregnant women.
Generally, the shampoo is applied at the time the head lice are discovered and then again in a week to 10 days. Two applications are needed so that any remaining eggs that may have hatched are killed in a second treatment.
Next, nits must be manually combed out. Lice hatch from tiny eggs that can be found on the hair shaft, usually close to the scalp. Since nits are firmly attached with a sticky, waterproof substance, they cannot be washed away or destroyed by blow drying the hair. Specialty nit combs can be more effective than a regular comb because they have very fine teeth to catch the nits. The removal process can be tedious and very time-consuming.
Tips for more effective removal are as follows:
- Divide the hair into four sections and comb them out one at a time.
- Be sure that the teeth of the comb are long enough to get deep into the hair, reaching the scalp.
- As nits are retrieved, wipe them off the comb with a tissue and place them in a sealed bag.
- Pin the hair up that has been combed to avoid recontamination.
- It's easier to comb through hair that is wet.
- After removing all identified nits, rinse the hair with warm water.
Sterilizing the home:
- Disinfect all combs and brushes by soaking in hot water (130 degrees F) for at least 15 minutes.
- Machine wash all clothing, towels, bed linens (especially pillow cases), blankets, etc. in hot water, and dry for at least 20 minutes on the highest heat cycle of your clothes dryer.
- Store all other exposed items that cannot be machine-washed (like stuffed animals and dolls) in tightly sealed plastic bags for two weeks. Since lice cannot live outside the body for any longer than this time period, any remaining lice or nits will die.
- Vacuum any affected areas such as rugs, furniture and mattresses, and discard the vacuum bag.
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