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Living Well

Head Lice: Myth vs. Fact

Last updated: Sep 12, 2016

When your child comes home from school scratching their head, it is hard not to panic about head lice. These parasites may be a major nuisance for the entire family, but they do not pose any health risks.

“There are many misconceptions about head lice. As clinicians, it is important to minimize these stigmas because lice may be a medical issue, but are not a public health issue. It is a nuisance that can happen to anyone regardless of whether their child is clean or dirty, rich, or poor.  Both of my kids have had them, so I am very empathetic,” says Daniel E. Hermann, MD, MPH, Chair of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at Summit Medical Group.

Myth: People get lice because they are dirty.

Poor personal hygiene does not cause head lice. The insects are attracted to human blood and do not care if a child or adult has clean or dirty hair. They can affect anyone, but are most common in young children attending pre-school or camp. Every year between six and 12 million children are infected. 

Myth: Lice carry disease.

These tiny bugs may cause you to be squeamish, itchy, and uncomfortable, but they do not spread illness. Kids who scratch excessively may irritate their scalp, which can potentially lead to skin infections.

Myth: My child has lice. She needs to see a pediatrician.

Since head lice is very contagious, Dr. Hermann advises that parents treat the problem at home. Physicians are available for counseling over the phone. Here’s what you need to know about treatment options:

  • Over-the-counter medications — Use products that contain 1 percent permethrin or pyrethrins. After the product is applied, comb through the hair carefully every day for several weeks and remove any nits (eggs). Treatment should be reapplied at day 9, and if needed, at day 18. 
  • Prescription drugs — When these at-home remedies fail, Dr. Hermann will prescribe a stronger treatment, such as spinosad or topical ivermectin.  
  • Lice removal salon — Trained professionals will sift through your child’s hair and pick out all the nits (eggs). Make sure to check family members as well.  
  • There is no scientific evidence that remedies like mayonnaise or olive oil will get rid of head lice, only anecdotal reports.

Myth: Lice can jump across the room.

These wingless insects can crawl very fast, but they cannot fly. They spread primarily through direct head-to-head contact. Even though they rarely live in sweatshirts, hats, or brushes, children should still avoid sharing these items.

Myth: I need to fumigate my house to get rid of lice.     

Typically, these pesky bugs need the warmth and moisture of a human scalp to survive. In rare cases, they can live for up to 48 hours on bedding, couches, stuffed animals, or clothing. It is not necessary to spend an excessive amount of time or money disinfecting your home. Normal household cleaning should do the trick. Remember to:

  • Wash and dry on high heat all sheets, blankets, and clothing.
  • Vacuum the house and car seats thoroughly. Cover the couch with a sheet for a few days.
  • Put all toys and stuffed animals in a sealed plastic bag for 2-3 days.

Myth: Nits and lice look the same.

Nits are tiny lice eggs that are yellow and oval-shaped. They are often confused with dandruff or dirt. When you comb through the hair, these nits will cling to the follicle while other debris will flake right off. When these eggs hatch they look like small grey or white insects, similar in size to a sesame seed. You may see them crawling on the scalp.

Myth: Children that have lice should not be in school.

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not endorse ‘no-nit’ policies that exclude children from school because lice eggs are found in the hair.

“This is not like, measles, meningitis, or pertussis,” says Dr. Hermann. He encourages school districts to allow children to return to school after they are treated.

Myth: You can get lice from swimming or pets.

Lice can survive underwater by using their sticky feet to latch on tightly to human hair. However, they are unlikely to spread under water. Pets also do not play a role in spreading lice.  

References

  1. Interview with Daniel E. Hermann, MD, MPH, pediatrician (7/1/16)
  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. “AAP Updates Treatments for Head Lice.” American Academy of Pediatrics. 27 April 2015. Web. 5 July 2016.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Head Lice - Frequently Asked Questions.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2 September 2015. Web. 5 July 2016. 
  4. National Association of Schools. “The Truth About Head Lice.” National Association of Schools. Web. 5 July 2016. 
  5. American Academy of Dermatology. “Head Lice.” American Academy of Dermatology. Web. 5 July 2016. 
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