-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
FRIDAY, Oct. 18 (HealthDay News) -- Although lice do not cause
serious physical harm, they can result in a lot of emotional
distress because many people still mistakenly believe they are a
sign of poor hygiene, an expert explains.
Head lice bite into the scalp to feed on blood, but these bites
are usually not painful. Still, a lice infestation can strike fear
in families for a number of reasons, including the stigma of being
A lice infestation, however, is not a reflection of a person's
cleanliness, according to Dr. Andrew Bonwit, a pediatric infectious
disease expert at Loyola University Health System in Illinois.
"Personal hygiene and socioeconomic status have nothing to do with having or transmitting head lice. The head louse is an equal-opportunity pest," explained Bonwit in a university news release. "The infestation is usually a nuisance and almost never a serious problem in itself."
There are other common misconceptions about lice, Bonwit pointed
out. In order to ease parents' fears, he dispelled the following
Although lice often cause a big stir, they are tiny and often
hard to spot. "Lice are very small, about the length of George
Washington's nose on a quarter," said Bonwit, who is also an
assistant professor of pediatric infectious disease at Loyola
University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. "The lice produce
eggs, called nits, which become strongly cemented to the host's
Nits look like small, dark spots on the side of the hair shaft.
Although the infestation isn't painful, it can be itchy, Bonwit
cautioned. "Sometimes the patient has been so itchy that he or she
scratches the scalp to the point of minor skin infections and even
causing some enlarged lymph nodes on the back of the neck or behind
the ears," he said. "While these changes may alarm parents, they
aren't directly harmful."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that
up to 12 million lice infestations occur each year in the United
States among children aged 3 to 11 years.
"Parents and school staff may become understandably upset by outbreaks of head lice, but it is important to remember that if the problem occurs, it is treatable, although repeat applications of medicine are usually needed," Bonwit said.
The most common lice treatment is over-the-counter or
prescription shampoos or lotions that must be applied to the scalp,
left on for a specified time, then rinsed off. Often a fine-toothed
comb is also needed to remove nits to prevent further
"The life cycle is about seven days from the laying of the eggs to the hatching, so a second insecticide treatment is recommended, after the first application," Bonwit advised. "If the treatments are used as directed, problems other than scalp irritation are unlikely to occur."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more
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