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How Common Is Head Lice, and How Can It Be Prevented?

Written by LVMC on in Health & Wellness

Head lice tends to be extremely common among school-aged children but can often be easily prevented by avoiding direct contact with infected individuals.

Head lice tends to be extremely common among school-aged children but can often be easily prevented by avoiding direct contact with infected individuals.

Head lice are small insects about the size of strawberry seeds that live on the human scalp. Head lice can be extremely itchy due to how they bite the skin to feed on blood and move around all over in the hair, including around the neck and ears.

Having head lice is known as pediculosis. September is known as National Pediculosis Prevention Month or Head Lice Prevention Month.

Continue reading to learn more about the prevalence of head lice and how you and your children can prevent and avoid pediculosis.

How Common Is Head Lice?

The CDC reports that every year in the United States, head lice affects an estimated six to 12 million children between the ages of three and 11. Anyone can get head lice, though it is much more common among children who attend preschool and elementary school.

What Causes Head Lice?

Head lice can crawl, but they cannot jump or fly. Head lice are spread by having direct contact with the hair of someone else who has head lice. Your children may get head lice if they sleep closely next to other children with head lice, such as at a slumber party, camping, or spending time with infested children at school or at their homes.

Head lice may also be transferred when wearing hats and clothing that belong to someone with head lice or when using their combs, hairbrushes, pillows, or bath towels.

What Are the Symptoms Of Head Lice?

Itching is the most common symptom associated with head lice. Itching usually occurs all over the scalp, including on the neck and near the ears. In many instances, itching may not occur for four to six weeks after infestation, as the allergic reaction to head lice bites usually takes weeks to set in.

Head lice are often very difficult to spot because they are tiny and move very quickly. They also avoid light and will move when light is shined on the scalp to identify the source of itching.

Sores are common with head lice due to the way they cause itching and scratching. Your children may develop small, red bumps on their scalp, neck, and shoulders due to constantly itching at the head lice.

13 Effective Ways To Prevent Head Lice

The best way to prevent head lice is to avoid coming into close contact with people who have head lice. However, many people with head lice — including children — are not often aware they have head lice, which can make prevention difficult.

Below are 13 effective steps you can take to prevent head lice.

1. Avoid Sharing Personal Items

Tell your children to avoid sharing intimate personal items that come into contact with hair, including hats, hairbrushes, hair combs, scarves, bandanas, helmets, pillows, and towels. Additionally, ask your children to avoid sharing hair accessories including barrettes, headbands, scrunchies, and hair ties. This can prevent your children from getting head lice that have crawled onto these items from another person’s scalp.

2. Keep Your Clothing Separated From Others’ Clothing

Tell your children to keep their hats and clothing separated from other children’s clothing when visiting their homes or going to school. For example, tell them to hang up their jackets on a separate hook when placing them in a school locker and avoid piling hats and scarves on a bed or chair next to other children’s clothing.

3. Clean Your Children’s Headwear Regularly

Wash your children’s hats, scarves, jackets, hooded sweatshirts, pillows, and bed sheets regularly to clear away any head lice that may have transferred onto these items from an infested person. Also, regularly wipe down all other items that come into contact with your children’s heads, including headphones, helmets, and car seats.

4. Inspect Your Children’s Heads Once a Week

Though head lice can be difficult to see and detect, take a few minutes every week to inspect your children’s heads for nits and sores. Nits are lice eggs that are usually yellow or white in color and attach to the very bottom of hair shafts. Red sores will also be present on the scalp if your child is itching due to head lice.

5. Make Sure Your Children Are Washing Their Hair Properly

Teach your children how to wash their hair thoroughly and properly using shampoo and conditioner. Make sure they are massaging their scalps, which can help clear away nits and head lice and dead skin cell buildup that contributes to oiliness and dandruff.

6. Ask Your Children To Avoid Direct Head-To-Head Contact

Teach your children the importance of avoiding head-to-head contact with other children, such as that which may occur during slumber parties, camping, sports activities, playtime, and when being photographed. Educate your children on how head lice can spread, and avoid head-to-head and hair-to-hair contact at all times.

7. Vacuum Floors, Carpets, and Furniture

After your children have hosted a slumber party or get-together at your home, vacuum all floors, carpets, rugs, and furniture right away to eliminate any surviving head lice that remain. Head lice generally do not survive for longer than two days after falling off a person’s scalp, which is why it’s important to clean these areas right away before lice crawl onto you or your children.

8. Soak Used Hair Brushes and Combs

Soak any hairbrushes and combs in hot water with a temperature of at least 130°F for five to 10 minutes if they have been used or borrowed by someone else. This includes any combs or hairbrushes you purchase at a yard sale or thrift store. Soaking these items in hot water will kill any head lice that have transferred onto them from someone else’s scalp.

9. Avoid Trying on Hats, Helmets, and Scarves Before Washing

Hats, helmets, and scarves displayed in retail stores are usually tried on by a number of shoppers over several days. You and your children may get head lice if an infested person tried on the same hats and helmets just minutes earlier. Closely inspect all hats, helmets, and scarves before trying them on in stores, and wash them right away as soon as you bring them home.

10. Swap Out Hugs For Fist Bumps and High-Fives

Encourage your children to greet one another with fist bumps and high-fives as opposed to hugging, which is when head lice can transfer from the other person’s scalp onto your children. Your children can adopt hugging later on past the age of 11, when the risk for getting head lice is significantly lower.

11. Encourage Your Children To Wear Their Hair Up At School

Head lice can crawl more easily onto hair that is loose and hanging down, versus braided hair, tied into a ponytail, or pinned in a bun. Encourage your children to wear their hair in “updos” when spending time at school or children’s events, and to wear their hair down when spending time at home with family.

12. Spritz Hair With Natural Lice Repellents

Head lice are repelled by certain scents and essential oils — many of which smell appealing to humans. Lemongrass, lavender, and geranium (rose) are some of the many essential oils and scents that repel head lice. Eucalyptus, citronella, rosemary, and tea tree are also effective and may be preferred by boys who want to smell less feminine.

Place a few drops of one of these essential oils into a small spray bottle filled with water, then spray it on your children’s hair daily before they go to school or attend a children’s event. These oils are found to be highly effective at preventing the transmission of head lice.

13. Apply Heat To Hair After Contact With Others

Head lice will often die when exposed to hot temperatures, such as that emitted by hairdryers and flat irons. This method may not prevent head lice from crawling onto the scalp but can prevent lice from laying eggs and multiplying. Apply one of these forms of heat to your children’s hair if you suspect it has been exposed to head lice.

What Are Treatments For Head Lice?

Head lice can be successfully treated with over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medicines. Ask your doctor for recommendations on OTC head lice treatments such as shampoos and topical creams that can be massaged into the scalp. Topic and oral medications including ivermectin, malathion, and spinosad may also be prescribed by your doctor to kill head lice.

Your children’s pediatrician may recommend using household “smothering” agents that can be applied to the scalp to prevent head lice from getting oxygen. Mayonnaise, petroleum jelly, and olive oil are common household products and smothering agents effective at destroying head lice.

Pediatric Services At Lompoc Valley Medical Center

Lompoc Valley Medical Care offers pediatric services, including head lice treatments, for teens and young children infected with head lice. Visit our provider page today to make an appointment and to learn more about our many available healthcare services for you and your family.

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Author: LVMC, Editorial Staff

Our experts in healthcare often discuss the latest topics in health and wellness and share them for the Lompoc community.