If your child has ever had head lice, you may have at first felt embarrassed. Yet, as you know, head lice is an extremely common childhood ailment. In fact, it has been estimated that more three million Americans are treated for head lice every year. However, not very many people know that much about head lice. So stop scratching your head when it comes to lice and start understanding about these little critters.
Getting to Know Head Lice
Head lice have an incredibly long history with humans. They have even been found on ancient mummies. Head lice are tiny little insects that feed off of human blood. While they may sound like vampires, they certainly don’t look like them. Just what head lice looks like depends on what stage of development it is in.
When a louse is born, it is clear but then takes on a reddish-brown color, almost like rust, after feeding. A louse has six legs with claws, which it uses to grasp hair strands in order to move about. Lice are roughly about the size of a sesame seed although a female louse is slightly bigger than a male.
However, it is unlikely that you will see actual adult lice when you are checking your child’s head. See our magnified picture of head lice to get an idea of what you are looking for. Lice are able to move very quickly among your hairs and can easily hide themselves out of sight. What you are more likely to see are nits.
Nits are the eggs that female lice lay. These eggs have a small oval shape and a yellowish-white hue to them. Not surprisingly, it is easy to mistake other hair debris, like dandruff, for nits. Nits are generally "glued" at an angle onto the side of the hair shaft, close to the scalp.
A head lice life cycle spans about 30 days. An egg hatches about seven to ten days after it has been laid. About a week after this, the lice reach adulthood and the females will lay her own eggs. Female louse lay between three and five eggs a day, roughly 100 eggs during a lifetime.
Lice can’t fly, swim or jump nor do they have any other super-human powers. Lice also quite like their view from the top and will not migrate to other parts of the body that have hair, like the arms. It is believed that lice can’t survive for more than 24 hours without a human host.
Who Gets Lice?
Pretty much anybody, adult or child, can get head lice. However, children between the ages of 3 and 10 and their families are the ones that are most likely to have an infestation. As well, girls are more likely to catch head lice than boys. It has been found, though, that African-Americans are much less likely than other ethnicities to have head lice, but this doesn’t mean that they are immune to lice. Therefore, all children need to have their heads checked regularly for lice.
While many people believe that lice only show up on those people who are unclean or living in unsanitary conditions, this is very far from being true. Head lice actually thrive on people who are in good health and have clean hair. Unfortunately, this fact is unlikely to make your child feel any better about her infestation.
Head lice are generally not thought to be a major threat to the public’s health, although they can definitely be a nuisance. They are spread mainly through direct head-to-head contact but also through the sharing of hats, towels, brushes, helmets and hair ties. Less frequently, sharing a pillow or headphones may result in a lice infestation. Symptoms of head lice include:
- An itchy scalp (this is the most common symptom)
- The feeling of something moving in your hair
- An irritated scalp
- Head sores caused by over scratching
Identify Head Lice
If you’re wondering what to look for when searching for head lice, then wonder no more. Although many schools conduct routine head lice searches, it is always a good idea for parents to take action and regularly check their child’s head for any signs of infestation.
Since adult lice will most likely hide away when you start searching, it is better to look for nits. Of course, if you do see live lice, then that’s a very good indication that some head lice treatment is needed. Lice is usually treated through chemical shampoos although there are a variety of natural shampoos and treatments available that are just as effective.
If you just see nits, though, then take note of where they are. Since nits are laid close to the scalp but move away as the hair grows, any nits that are less than ¼ in from the scalp are likely to indicate an active infestation. If the nits are more than ¼ in away, then the infestation is not active and treatment is probably not necessary since the nits have not hatched. But it is still a good idea to remove the nits and keep checking for the next few weeks for any new nits.
It’s not always easy to tell when nits are nits, though. Brit, a regular member of the volunteer head lice patrol at her daughters’ school, recommends running your fingers over the hair shaft to see if the white debris in question is easily removed. "Nits stick very well to the hair," she says. "They won’t just fly off like dandruff does when you touch them." But be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after using this method of investigation to prevent the further spread of lice.