If your child comes home from school scratching his or her head, there’s a good chance it may be from lice.

This parasitic insect migrates to the head, eyebrows and eyelashes of adults and children, feeding on human blood several times throughout the day. While head lice aren’t known to spread disease, they are very easily spread from person to person and are a big nuisance.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about 6 to 12 million cases of head lice among children ages 3 to 11 each year.

How Do You Get Lice?

Lice are very easily spread via contact with someone who already has them. Whether it’s head-to-head contact during playtime or at school, lice can jump from one child to another. While it’s less likely, head lice can also be spread by sharing the clothes or belongings of a child who has lice.

On a positive note, head lice do not attach to dogs, cats and other pets, so at least you don’t need to worry about your pets becoming infested.

How to Check for Lice

The best way to identify whether your child has any of the three forms of lice is to examine the scalp using a magnifying glass. Begin at the base of your child’s neck and divide the hair into small sections while you search.

Lice eggs (called nits) can be difficult to spot since they often look like a dandruff flake and usually don’t move. Adult lice, found on the scalp or hair, are more noticeable and usually move quickly.

What Does Lice Look Like?

There are three forms to head lice: the egg (often referred to as a nit), the nymph and the adult.

  • Lice eggs. When head lice are in the egg/nit stage, they can often be found at the base of the hair shaft, nearest to the scalp. These eggs, which firmly attach themselves to the hair shaft, can be almost impossible to see, often requiring a magnifying glass. They are usually white, tan or brown and can be confused with dandruff, scabs or even hair spray droplets. If you are unsure whether you’re looking at a nit or dandruff flake, you may want to search the internet to see exactly what you’re looking for.
  • Nymph. Once the head lice reach the nymph phase, they look like an adult head louse, only smaller.
  • Adult lice. A fully grown head louse is typically the size of a sesame seed with six legs and a tan to grayish-white color.

What Causes Head Lice?

Head lice are typically caused by direct contact, with the largest risk being children in preschool, daycare and school.

As soon as you hear that someone in your child’s class or group of friends has lice, you should immediately use a lice comb to look for it. If your child has lice, report it to your child’s school nurse or program coordinator immediately to help keep it from spreading.

Where Do Lice Come From?

It is suspected that human head lice evolved from head lice that lived on chimpanzees more than 5.5 million years ago. In modern day, head lice come from someone else’s hair.

In most cases, head lice have probably been comfortably nesting on someone else’s head for some time. While very unlikely, it’s possible that you or your child could get lice from being in contact with an object that an infected person has used, such as a hairbrush, sofa, or movie theater seat.

Head Lice Symptoms

If your child has head lice, it will feel like something is moving in his or her hair—often described as a tickling feeling. Your child will likely begin to scratch the head, a reaction to the itchiness caused by an allergy to the bites of the louse. It’s not unusual to find sores on your child’s head, which can be caused by intense scratching.

Irritability and trouble sleeping are common symptoms as well since lice are very active at night.

How to Get Rid of Head Lice and Their Eggs

The best way get rid of lice is to use a prescription or over-the-counter medication. Some parents believe that home remedies, like mayonnaise or olive oil, will suffocate lice.

With either method, start with clean hair—but avoid using combination shampoo-and-conditioner products. If you choose to use a medication, follow instructions closely. For medication that comes in shampoo form, try to limit the amount that touches the body by washing hair over the sink rather than in the shower.

Eight to 12 hours after treatment, remove lice using a fine-toothed comb. Avoid using a regular shampoo for at least a day or two after treatment, and continue checking for nits and lice for at least another a week or so.

Once you’ve completed the lice treatment, sanitize combs and brushes by soaking them in boiling water for five to 10 minutes.

How to Prevent Lice

To keep your child lice free, it’s important that they understand how the insects spread. They should avoid sharing items that touch the head (such as combs or towels), avoid activities that lead to head-to-head contact and keep belongings away from shared areas (like coat closets).

How Long Do Lice Live

Typically, head lice can live on your child’s head for as long as 30 days. Once lice eggs have been laid, it takes seven to 10 days for them to hatch. If the egg (or nit) has been removed from your child’s head, it may not hatch at all. Generally, head lice can’t survive more than 24 hours off the human host.

If you believe your child has head lice and would like to talk with a medical professional, consider visiting your local Medical City Children’s Urgent Care.

With five locations throughout the DFW area, you can find the clinic nearest you by visiting our website.

Make sure to use our Web Check-In® feature prior to your visit.

Disclaimer: Patients’ health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you.