Your day is humming along just fine, and suddenly there it is: a call from the school nurse asking you to come get your child from school — she’s found the tell-tale white eggs of head lice on his scalp.
Or as you go through your daughter’s backpack, you find the note from school saying there’s been a rise in incidences of lice.
In fact, you’re scratching your scalp just reading this far. Head lice, universally hated by parents and educators alike, are enough to make you panic, cry, or panic and cry. And if you’ve found this story after hitting Google to find out what your next steps are, you may be even more confused and worried.
Luckily Matthew Simon, M.D., pediatrician and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas, says that a bout of head lice is more inconvenient than dangerous.
“The first thing I would do is calm down,” he says. “Head lice infestations are very common. It happens to a lot of kids.”
“And it’s treatable, but it takes a plan of action,” Simon adds. “Calling your pediatrician can help you make that plan to tackle it, and if you want to use prescription medication to treat it, you’ll probably need to go in.”
Although the term “super lice” seems scary, “it doesn’t mean they’re more dangerous,” Simon says. “It means that they are just more resistant to the medical methods we’ve been using to treat them.
“We’re definitely seeing a resistance in these lice to the current medicine,” he says. “I would say that resistance rates are probably at about 50 percent or higher in the area. Basically, you have about a 50/50 chance of the conventional methods working.”
A recent article in Scientific American says that in Europe, doctors are moving away from the medical insecticides used to treat lice in the past and are adopting a more labor-intensive but more effective method: synthetic oils and nit removal with a fine-tooth comb.
While doctors in the U.S. haven’t moved that direction just yet, Simon says he agrees that removing the nits with a fine-tooth comb is ultimately the most effective way to get rid of lice and eggs.
“Physically removing lice is effective, but time-consuming,” he says. “You should expect to spend at least two hours combing through the hair. There are even storefronts now that will do this for you, and guarantee that your child will be louse-free at the end.”
The oils used in Europe, he explains, don’t kill the eggs or lice, however. “They immobilize the lice to make them easier to find and remove,” he says.
And after ensuring that your child is louse-free, Simon suggests checking siblings and the rest of the family and laundering common sources of transmission like bedding and hats. Sanitizing combs and brushes is also important. Soak combs, brushes and other washable items for one hour in one of the approved lice shampoos, or, soak them for 5 to 10 minutes in a pan of 130-degree hot water, the Texas Department of State Health Services suggests.
“You will need to do this not only to avoid re-infesting your child, but also to make sure nobody else in the house becomes infested,” Simon says.
The Texas Department of State Health Services also suggests thoroughly vacuuming any carpets in the home where your child commonly lies or plays, and dry cleaning any items like hats or coats with hoods that can’t be laundered. Stuffed animals, pillows, blankets and comforters can be sealed in plastic bags for about two weeks to kill lice and nits.
However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spending a lot of time and money on housecleaning is not necessary to avoid re-infestation by lice or nits that may have fallen off the head or crawled onto furniture or clothing. Do watch out for fogs or sprays, though, as they are not necessary to control head lice and can be toxic if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
“They (lice) needs people and are spread person to person. They can’t live very long at all if they’re not on a person,” Simon agrees.
Once you’ve cleared the pests out of your home, you may entertain the idea of trying to prevent them. While there are a range of shampoos and products that bill themselves as louse preventives, Simon says the research is iffy at best on how effective they are.
“They are intriguing, but probably not helpful,” he says. “There’s some research that indicates they may dissuade lice from your child’s scalp, but it’s really a mixed bag.”
“The essential oils in those products are from plants that are unfriendly to lice in some way, and the strong smell is what is the deterrent,” he explains. “But those same oils can irritate the scalp, and if they get in the eyes they can really irritate them.”
More effective, according to the CDC, is teaching your children the following measures:
- Avoid head-to-head (hair-to-hair) contact during play and other activities at home, school and elsewhere (sports activities, playground, slumber parties, camp).
- Do not share clothing such as hats, scarves, coats, sports uniforms, hair ribbons or barrettes.
- Do not share combs, brushes or towels.
But most of all, Simon wants parents to know that the dreaded phone call from the school nurse is not a reflection on parenting.
“It has nothing to do with hygiene,” he says. “Lice like dirty hair, clean hair, all types of hair. It’s not a reflection on how clean your keep your house.”
1-877-THR-WELL (1-877-847-9355) to schedule an appointment.