Head lice: Two words that strike fear into the hearts of parents and nannies everywhere. Merely the thought of the tiny bugs that live in human hair and feed on small amounts of human blood makes most of us immediately start scratching our heads. But while a lice outbreak is frustrating and (yes) may cause involuntary cringing, it’s important to know that these pesky parasites are not dangerous and do not cause disease.

They do, however, cause disruption — and a lot of it. According to the CDC, the number of lice infestations in children ages 3 to 11 is estimated to be as high as 12 million each year in the U.S. alone. And even though you may be inclined to feel embarrassed if lice take up residence on your child’s head, this isn’t a hygiene issue — lice can survive regular showering and shampooing.

The chances of catching lice increase whenever kids are in close, head-to-head contact with one another (think: school, camp, sports teams and other extracurricular activities), but spreading lice isn’t as easy as you might think. Contrary to popular belief, lice do not have super powers — they can’t fly or long jump from head to head. They also can’t survive on pets or when they aren’t living on a host (aka your child’s head), which means that lice on furniture, pillows or stuffed animals will die within 24 to 48 hours.

Know the Signs of Lice
Symptoms of lice are often subtle and might not even show up until weeks after a lice infestation has occurred. Even the most common symptom of lice — an itchy head — isn’t a given, but if you do see your child scratching his scalp, you’ll want to take a closer look.

What exactly are you looking for? Nits, or lice eggs, are tiny — not much larger than a grain of sand — and easy to mistake for dandruff. But you can see them. Look for nits close to the scalp where they attach to the shaft of the hair. Nymphs are newly hatched lice and look the same as adult lice, though they are about half the size. Adult lice mature in about two weeks, are approximately the size of a sesame seed, are brownish or yellowish in color, and can be seen moving though the hair.

If you catch it early, an outbreak of head lice can be relatively manageable; however, reports of “super lice”—lice that have become resistant to insecticides used in common treatments—are becoming a concern for parents and sitters. Still, try not to panic. If you find lice on your child’s head, here’s what to do:

Start with traditional treatments. The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to recommend over-the-counter remedies like Nix or RID for the treatment of lice. Both are considered safe and effective for children over the age of 2. Follow the directions and do a second treatment a week to 10 days following the first to kill any newly hatched lice. The downside? Parents may not be keen on dousing their child’s head in insecticides, and these products feature the ingredients that super lice are becoming resistant to.

Visit a salon. An alternative to typical treatments, lice removal services and salons (sorry, no cut and color here) are becoming more widely available. Technicians in these salons painstakingly comb through your child’s hair to determine if lice are present and then use natural, non-toxic products and vigorous combing to remove lice. Anecdotal feedback about these services is often positive though the process takes time and peace of mind doesn’t come cheap. You can easily spend more than $200 checking and treating each family member in one of these salons.

Try a home remedy. If you don’t want to use an over-the-counter treatment or spend the money on a lice removal service, you could try a home remedy like applying mayonnaise or oil to the scalp and covering it with a shower cap, which is said to suffocate the lice. Keep in mind though, it may not be worth the time and effort. These treatments are messy and not proven to be effective.

Comb through the hair. Regardless of what remedy you choose, combing through wet hair vigorously with a lice comb, a metal pick with tightly packed bristles, can remove lice and nits when done properly. Do this daily for a week or longer depending on whether or not you continue to find lice.

Get a prescription. If over-the-counter or other treatments don’t work, talk to your doctor about a prescription-strength treatment.

Clean house. Because lice won’t live long off the host, you don’t need to bleach everything within a five-mile radius—even though that might be your instinct. Bag up plush toys for two weeks or simply throw them in the dryer on high for 40 minutes; wash the bedding and clothes in hot water and dry on high heat; and vacuum floors and chairs.

Take Steps to Prevent Lice
The best way to avoid the drama of lice is to help prevent your child from contracting lice in the first place. Here are five easy steps you can take:

  1. Discourage kids from sharing personal items—no passing around brushes or combs in the bathroom or trying on friend’s hats, scarves, or hair accessories. Take the time to explain what lice is and how it’s spread, so they have a better understanding of why this important.
  2. If you’ve been informed about a lice outbreak at school, keep your child’s long hair tied in a ponytail, bun or braid. Left loose, long hair can easily come in contact with other children’s heads, giving lice an easy opportunity to make themselves at home on a new host.
  3. Hair products can help. Lice have a more difficult time clinging to hair that has been styled with hairspray or gel.
  4. Natural repellants are an option, though the evidence to back up these claims is largely anecdotal. Tea tree oil as well as mint are said to deter lice. Add a few drops to your child’s shampoo or a spray bottle filled with water and spritz hair.
  5. Be vigilant. Sitters, nannies and parents should make a habit of checking a child’s head weekly to make sure you aren’t seeing signs of an outbreak. Use a flashlight—these suckers can be tough to see.

Most importantly, don’t let the threat of lice overwhelm you. Even when you take steps to prevent it, a lice outbreak can just happen. If it does, keep in mind that after a brief interruption, you’ll eventually be lice-free and life will return to normal.

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