5 learnings about lice every parent needs to know

Children's Health

by Samuel A. DeLiberato, DO

Aug 19, 2018

The school year means bringing home new friends, homework and in some unfortunate cases, those dreaded critters we know as head lice. Every parent fears the diagnosis — but if and when it happens to your child, it’s important to be prepared.

What is lice, and can you prevent it?

Head lice are tiny parasites that infest the scalp and hair regions. The lice feed on blood from the scalp and it’s their saliva that causes itching. While this sounds revolting, catching lice is not a sign of bad hygiene or uncleanliness.

You can get lice when you come into direct contact with the head of someone who has it. This is the most common mode of transfer. Thankfully, lice do not travel from animals to humans or jump and fly between hosts.

While anyone can get lice, children are most commonly affected. Some studies show girls are more susceptible to catching head lice than boys.

What are the symptoms?

One of the first signs of head lice is itching.

It’s the most common symptom and one you should pay attention to if you notice your child is bothered by an itchy head. But keep in mind that this itching doesn’t kick in the moment lice make themselves at home. Instead, it depends on how sensitive the child’s head is or if they have been previously exposed.

If your child has an itchy head, you’ll need to take a close look. Setting sight on the lice is the “gold standard” for diagnosing a case of head lice. An effortless way to look for them is simply by combing through wet or lubricated hair with a fine-toothed, nit comb.

What do I do if I think my child has lice?

If you suspect your child has head lice, you should visit your primary care doctor who can rule out other conditions and make sure your child really does have lice. Once diagnosed, you and your child’s doctor can decide on the best treatment option for you.

Topical medicines are good first-line treatments, but you’ll want to see your doctor before you begin treatment.

It’s hard not to scratch but try to remind your child to keep their hands off their head. Scratching can cause an infection, so you want to be careful.

My child has lice. Now what?

It’s important to alert your child’s school as soon as possible if your child has head lice. Many schools have individualized lice attendance protocols that should be followed. Be sure to follow up with schools to abide by the guidelines in place.

At home, if you share a bed with someone who is infested with lice, you should be treated proactively. Lice cannot live off the scalp for more than 48 hours, but you’ll want to be sure to get rid of them. Wash all clothing and bedding in hot water and dry on a high heat setting. If items can’t be washed, seal the items in a plastic bag for up to two weeks or have it dry cleaned.

For many children, getting lice is an unavoidable part of the school age years. But parents, take heart — knowing these steps for proper prevention, treatment and protocol can help you be prepared.

Find a family medicine physician near you.

About the Author

Samuel A. DeLiberato, DO, is a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Austin Circle C. He earned his doctor of osteopathic medicine degree from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Erie, PA, and completed his residency in family medicine at The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education in Scranton, PA.

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