Head lice can afflict even the cleanest of kids

November 14, 2003|by LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN

Just the thought of head lice is enough to make any parent's skin crawl.

How could your darling, squeaky clean child come home with a head full of gray or reddish-brown wingless insects?

He probably shared a hat or comb with someone else's darling, squeaky clean child.

While many parents may associate head lice with uncleanliness, the opposite is actually true.

Lice like clean hair. It's easier to cling to a clean hair follicle than a dirty, greasy one.

So, if your child gets head lice, it's no reflection on your child's grooming skills or your housekeeping skills.

On the contrary, it's probably a reflection on your parenting skills - in a good way.

Know how we've been teaching our children since day one to share? Well, if yours comes home with head lice, you'll know that he listened to that advice.


What we need to tell our children, especially as cold weather approaches, is to not share hats, scarves, coats, sweatshirts, combs, brushes, headphones, hair accessories and the like.

Lice can't jump from person to person, but they can crawl from an outside source onto the hair. They only survive a day or two without a human host.

How can you tell when a child has head lice?

He will scratch his head a lot, says Dr. Richard J. Bonforte, medical director of Children's Hospital of Hudson County in Jersey City, N.J.

Adult lice lay eggs, which are called nits. These nits adhere to hair close to the scalp. This causes irritation.

Sometimes parents think their children have lice when it's actually dandruff, says Bonforte, a pediatrician. But he says you can tell the difference. While dandruff is flaky, nits are shiny and look like droplets.

It's difficult to see the adult insect, because it is only about the size of a sesame seed, Bonforte says. He recommends looking for nits behind the ears and at the nape of the neck.

The good news is that head lice won't make your child sick. Lice do not carry diseases.

"They're an annoyance more than a source of disease," Bonforte says.

The bad news is that head lice cause discomfort for the child and extra work for the parent.

Clothes, bed linens and towels will need to be laundered. Combs and brushes need to be soaked in hot water. Things that can't be washed, such as stuffed animals, need to be placed in a tightly sealed bag for at least two weeks. Carpets, mattresses, pillows, furniture and car seats should be vacuumed.

And each family member affected will need to be treated.

Most treatments are marketed as shampoos but are applied to dry hair, Bonforte says. A comb is used to remove the nits and adult lice.

While children can return to school once they've been treated, some schools require that a child's scalp is free from nits before they can be readmitted, Bonforte says.

The Washington County Public School system has a nit-free policy, according to Melinda Malott, school health program manager.

Children must be nit-free before returning to class.

If you suspect your child has head lice, consult with your doctor or school nurse.

By telling the school nurse, you not only will be helping other children, you could be preventing your child from getting reinfected.

Remember that head lice can strike any family.

Summing it up in Dr. Seuss fashion, Bonforte says, "Long hair, short hair, lice like hair."

For more information and to obtain a free copy of the children's book "There's a Louse in My House," go to on the Web.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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