HomeHealth & BehaviorHealth & Nutrition

The lowdown on lice

Because all it takes is a few lice to wreak havoc on an entire school (and that's not even counting drug-resistant "super-lice"), we've gathered the facts you'll need to banish these obnoxious bloodsuckers and live louse-free.

By GreatSchools Staff

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The first steps

Every year countless kids are exposed to Pediculus humanus capitis, the human head louse. Most schools have a no-nits policy, which means students with any signs of infestation must stay home. Thus schools lose money whenever lice strike. If one in every 10 children in the United States gets lice at some point, MedicineNet estimates that the yearly cost of lice is $1 billion.

But first things first: How do you identify lice, and where do you look for them? Expect to find nits — or yellowish, oval eggs that resemble dandruff or scabs — on the hair an inch or two above the scalp. They're usually concentrated behind the ears and in the hairline just above the neck. Eggs take about eight or nine days to hatch, and newly hatched lice are called nymphs. Often too small to be visible to the naked eye, nymphs mature to the adult stage within 9 to 12 days. Fully grown lice are tan to grayish-white, about the size of a sesame seed, and six-legged with sharp, hook-like claws they use to attach themselves to hair. They feed on blood and can survive on a person's head for up to a month.

For answers to commonly asked questions about lice, check out this fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For those with questions about the nature of an infestation, the Harvard School of Public Health offers free head louse evaluation by mail.

Comments from readers

"Don't be fooled by 'gadgets' or gimicks like the Lousebuster. Don't be fooled by the fact that it is FDA 'Cleared'. This does not mean it is FDA approved, it merely means it is cleared for marketing purposes. While this gadget may kill some lice and nits, (rumor has it their numbers are a little hyped) there is no way around combing. You must comb everything out of the hair in order to get rid of a head lice infestation. THis device cannot be used on children under four or people who can't express any level of discomfort, aka children or adults with special needs. Also can cause scalp burns if not used properly or in people who have a contraindicated condition. I love how this is hidden in the Lousebuster literature. THere are plenty of products out there that can kill lice and nits, but the main focus should be on removal, not a glorified hairdryer that costs $2000. I am willing to bet my Chi Hairdryer set on a cool setting with the diffuser will be just as effecti! ve. I think I'll stick to my lice comb! Also, NO-NIT is the way to go. It makes parents accountable and actually makes them comb everything out of the hair. Otherwise, they just go home, throw on some rid and send their kid back to school. Not wonder lice are everywhere."
"My youngest got lice at 3 and has very curly hair, it was a nightmare. It got so bad I finally called the pediatrician and they gave me a prescription but leary the bottle said right on it do not use on children under 5! I then found A little expensive but worth every penny, with one treatment everything was gone and they even sell a special laundry detergent b/c water does not kill the bugs. If it ever happend to you, don't hesistate go to"
"Actually, according to the National Pediculosis Association, more than 90% of U.S. schools have a no-nit policy. On the other hand, the CDC has this to say: 'Current evidence does not support the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of classroom or school-wide screening for head lice to reduce the number of head lice infestations among school children. “No-nits� policies that require a student to be free of nits before they can return to school are not recommended. Students diagnosed with live head lice should not be sent home early from school; they can go home at the end of the day, be treated, and return to class the next day. Excluding children from school because of head lice is not recommended.'"
"Author needs to get their facts straight... in our school system the child with lice isn't even sent home... would draw attention to them and violate their rights of privacy. The child's parents get a note about lice and treatment but the rest of the class is NOT notified that they may have come in contact, again violation of privacy is sited. Lice are considered (in our school district) a nusiance, and procluding the child from an education is a greater offense... There is quite the back channel mom network of calling around as soon as anyone hears from their kid about any kid getting found with lice (the kids know and talk in elementary) and we spread the word like lightning so we can stay on top of it. A drastic difference from our experience on the east coast with preschool and daycare, to public school in WA."
"Lice Squad Canada has utalized the electronic comb and is planning to implement this new Louse Buster technology. We embrace new innovations and use what makes the process of lice removal fast and safe for our clients. Good job to those who come up with these great prodcuts. We apprecaite them."
"Lice Removal--Simple, safe, no chemicals. Buy a really fine toothed cat comb. Put your child in a nice warm bath--hopefully they are young enough for this.For a girl-- saturate dry hair with any cheap conditioner. Pin up and let it stay on for 30 minutes. The conditioner will suffocate the eggs as they have a breathing hole in them and it gets clogged by the conditioner. Part the child's hair into six even sections. Put the fine comb through one section at a time. Each comb through clean comb with tissue and drop into toilet. Do whole head this way. Let her lay back rinse hair, drain tub and repeat. Is this a pain? Yes. But make it fun--laugh with your child. Do this ritual for three days. Then keep her away from playdates and keep her hair tied up at school until the lice problem is out of the school because no one wants to discuss lice so you won't know where the reinfestion is coming from. For boys--get them a crew cut. For you--dye your hair a nice color--the chemicals i! n the dye will kill the lice. I had to do this on two separate ocassions for my daughter. I couldn't understand how she got them. It turned out they were coming into the house from my son's best friend whose mom had no idea he had them because he was about twelve and had light hair. After I saw them in his hair in the sunlight, I told the mother confidentially to get the boy a crew cut--go to a barber you don't know. It'll save the boy embarrassment and barbers deal with this all the time. They sweep the lice up and throw the affected hair away. Lice won't live unless they have a host's head to feed on."
"Shame on you for calling lice treatment a 'humiliation.' Lice are a fact of life and you should encourage people to be open about getting rid of it so they get treatment for themselves and their children. "