A mother combs through her child's hair using a lice comb

What You Need to Know About Lice

I admit it. Despite being well-versed on head lice, the mere mention of it is enough to make me cringe and start to itch. Head lice continue to cause fear and panic among parents, child care providers and teachers alike. Fortunately, a lot of the worry is unnecessary as this is a very normal part of parenting a toddler. When it comes to lice, the more you know about them, the less scary they are.

We know a lot about lice and their habits. There are plenty of evidence-based recommendations on what to do (and not do!) if children are exposed to or have head lice that will help ease your panic, answer your questions and leave you feeling better the next time lice make a stop at your household.

what you should know about lice

Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Lice don’t have superpowers. Lice don’t hop, leap, fly or jump. Getting from one place (or head) to another generally requires direct contact, either head-to-head, or with a go-between object such as a brush, comb or hat. Simply being in the same room, house, child care center or school where lice have been spotted does not seal one’s fate.
  2. Lice aren’t dirty. One of the most unfortunate aspects of getting head lice, aside from the itching, is that many people incorrectly associate head lice with poor hygiene and uncleanliness. These factors don’t determine who becomes infected, nor do lice spread disease.
  3. Wandering lice are short-lived. Lice have to stay very close to the scalp to live. Away from the scalp – whether on people or on objects – they can survive for less than a day.
  4. Itching takes time. While my reaction to hearing about head lice is to instantly itch, in reality it takes around 4-6 weeks for itching to start after becoming infected. When itching begins, it’s most commonly behind the ears or back of the neck.
  5. Nits are not lice. Finding a nit is not the same thing as finding a live louse. Nits are actually the tiny white or yellow-brown eggs or empty egg casings lice leave behind. Nits are quite sticky and can remain stuck to hair even after lice have been effectively treated and are long gone.
  6. Lice are sneaky little buggers. Because lice avoid sunlight, move fast and are small, finding them can be difficult. Successful searching generally involves wetting and parting the hair, looking near the scalp, and using a fine-tooth comb to systematically search through sections of hair. Since thoroughly searching for head lice is time consuming, you may not want to rely solely on head lice screening programs in schools.

Treating Head Lice

While there are many home remedies for head lice, including petroleum jelly, mayonnaise or oils, they have not been proven to be effective. Some remedies, such as gasoline or kerosene, are extremely dangerous and should never be considered or used. Should your child have head lice, remain calm and rest assured that there are several head lice medicines currently approved by the FDA.

Before starting treatment, it’s always a good idea to discuss options with your pediatrician. Be sure to notify family members and other close contacts, including employees at your child’s preschool or school, so they can get checked and treated as needed.

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About the Author

Dr. Laura Jana is a pediatrician, Director of Innovation at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and award-winning parenting and children’s book author. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Michigan, an MD from Case Western Reserve, and is the founder of Practical Parenting Consulting and Amazing Me Books. She focuses on early childhood, and is a media spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Jana lives in Nebraska with her husband and 3 children.