FRIDAY, Sept. 10 (HealthDay News) -- They're the ultimate creepy
crawler. Creatures that truly give people the willies. And they're
apt to make you feel unclean, or maybe even a bad parent (neither
of which, experts say, is valid).
Head lice truly are nasty little buggers -- parasitic insects
that infest the head, eyebrows and eyelashes of their human hosts
and cause the creepiest tickling sensation along the scalp.
They're a worldwide phenomenon, but in the United States they
infect mostly school-age children, according to the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention. Health experts estimate that 6
million to 12 million U.S. kids, 3 to 11 years old, get infested
Vigilance is the key to heading off an infestation, said Deborah
Altschuler, president of the National Pediculosis Association, a
nonprofit group aimed at head lice prevention.
"The best way is to know what to look for, screen often and detect the problem as soon as possible," she said.
Any child can get head lice. Dr. David Flinders, a family
physician in Provo, Utah, stressed that getting head lice shouldn't
reflect badly on children who have them or on the children's
"People often think it's associated with poor hygiene or low socioeconomic status," Flinders said. But, he said, "an affluent person is just as likely to get head lice as someone from a lower socioeconomic status."
Head lice spread through close contact. They can't jump or fly
so they must crawl between people who are touching each other.
"It comes from person-to-person, head-to-head," Flinders said. "It's mostly a disease of elementary school kids because they're pretty intimate. They are touching heads when whispering and talking, or taking naps together." Head lice also can spread through the sharing of combs or hair brushes.
Today, more ways than ever exist to prevent infestations from
occurring and to effectively get rid of head lice. But preventing
head lice first and foremost means reducing their ability to spread
between people, Flinders and Altschuler said. That includes:
Her association recommends that parents comb their children's
hair a couple times a week, or at bath time, using a special
fine-toothed comb able to sweep lice and nits out of a child's
"We say comb first because a quality comb is a wonderful tool to help you remove what you can't even see," she said.
Even with these precautions, a child might still get head lice.
In that case, parents need to shift into treatment mode
Most doctors recommend using over-the-counter or prescription
lice treatments that contain mild pesticides such as pyrethrins,
which are extracted from chrysanthemums. "They appear to be pretty
safe for humans, except for infants," Flinders said. "It is
difficult to eradicate an infestation without resorting to
However, Altschuler's group is among those who don't like the
idea of using such treatments.
"It's one of the only times a parent would directly apply a pesticide to their child," Altschuler said. "Parents need to get to the problem as early as possible so they can avoid the use of chemicals or pesticides."
Instead, she recommends that parents brush the lice and nits out
of an infested child's hair. It's a painstaking process that must
be repeated daily because a new infestation can easily occur if any
nits or lice are missed, but her group believes it's safer than
Another non-chemical option now available, the LouseBuster, is a
device that uses heated air to kill off lice and nits. "It forces
hot air at high temperatures into hair," Flinders said. "That will
dehydrate the lice."
An oral systemic medication, ivermectin, also has been used for
hard-to-treat cases of lice infestation, Flinders said. The
medication kills adult lice as they bite into a person, but it
won't kill off nits, which means the infestation will continue
until all existing eggs have hatched.
Other points to remember include:
"If your child becomes infested, don't panic," Flinders said. "It doesn't mean your child has poor hygiene or you're a bad parent or you've done something wrong. Just treat the problem, and be sure to check everybody."
The Nemours Foundation has more on
For more on
battling head lice, read about a school nurse's view from the front lines.
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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