By Vanessa Rasmussen, © 2004, All rights reserved.
Head lice infestations are a common problem in infants and children, even in those who practice good hygiene and frequent hair washing. Lice are tiny brown and gray parasites that can cause itching and scratching, especially on areas of the body that are covered with hair (typically the scalp, neck, and behind the ears). Head lice are caused by a parasite, Pediculosis capitis. Infection with head lice is called pediculosis.
Eggs from the adult lice are whitish and are firmly attached to hair shaft. They are hard to see and are often confused with dandruff or hair spray droplets. The eggs hatch in 6-14 days. It then takes another one to two weeks for the lice to mature and be able to reproduce and lay more eggs. Adult lice are gray or reddish-brown and 1/16 of an inch long - about the size of a sesame seed. They have tiny claws on their legs that are adapted for feeding and clinging to hair or clothing.
Lice only infect humans and are spread by direct head to head contact with someone who is already infected. Sometimes, they spread by using other peoples' belongings (such as hats, brushes or combs). The most common symptom of children infected with head lice is itching, although some children do not complain if they have a light infestation. Frequent itching can lead to the development of crusty sores on the child's scalp, which can be a sign of a secondary infection. Upon close inspection, the scalp may be red and irritated, and there may be linear abrasions from scratching. Some of these abrasions can become infected and can lead to crusted lesions and enlarged glands (lymph nodes) in the back of the neck or behind the ear.
Medicated shampoos, creams, and lotions that contain some amount of insecticide to kill lice can end a lice infestation right away, but it may take about 5 days for the itching to stop. Doctors recommend that you use a special rinse on your child's hair before using a fine-toothed comb to comb out lice nits (eggs). Do not use a hairdryer on your child's hair after any scalp treatments because some of them contain flammable ingredients. It is possible that your child's doctor may repeat treatment in 7 to 10 days.
Avoid using lice sprays, pesticides, gasoline or other non-approved products on your child. Do not treat an infant or a toddler with anti-lice medication without consulting with your doctor. Consult your pediatrician if your child's lice infestation has not resolved in 1-2 weeks or if his scalp has a rash that is infected with pus or honey colored scabs.
Because lice infestations are easily passed from person to person in the same house, members of your family may need treatment to prevent lice from coming back. Once lice have been identified in the home, it is advisable to treat all family members at the same time. This can safeguard against re-infection. It is important to sterilize bedding, clothes and towels by washing and drying them in the hot cycles of washing machines. Lice and nits can not survive in temperatures greater than 128 degrees for over 5 minutes. Also, you can make combs, brushes, headbands and hats germ-free by either soaking them in hot water for 10 minutes or sealing them in airtight plastic bags and storing them for a few days. Lice needs human contact to thrive and hence, will not survive for more than two days if you keep them isolated like this.
Copyright 2001, 2004. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article in whole or in part without written or verbal permission is strictly prohibited. For information about reprinting this article, contact the copyright owner: Vanessa Rasmussen, Ph.D, Starting a Day Care Center, http://www.startingadaycarecenter.com.