There's a less exciting part of sending your kids back to school after school holidays: the knowledge that along with new friends, homework, and endless crafts, they're super likely to come home with bugs . . . sometimes literally in the form of dreaded lice.
Lice are extremely common and nothing to be embarrassed about (hey, even Jennifer Garner got them!), but that doesn't mean they're not hugely annoying and generally icky. As you send your students back to class, praying they don't ever come home with a letter from the teacher warning of a lice outbreak, here are 15 things to know about head lice in general, including how to avoid them and what to do if they invade your kid's head.
- Lice are nothing to be embarrassed about! Millions of school-age children in the United States get head lice every year, and the bugs infect a cross section of the population. Getting lice doesn't mean you weren't clean or vigilant enough. Simply put, lice happen!
- Head lice live for about 28 days. They develop in three phases: egg (also called a nit), nymph, and louse. Nits hatch in six to nine days and are usually found within a few millimeters of the scalp (they don't survive if they're farther away). Nymphs look like adult head lice but are much smaller (about the size of a pinhead) and become adults about seven days later. An adult louse, which is about the size of a sesame seed, can multiply fast and lay up to 10 eggs a day. It takes about 12 to 14 days for a nit to reach adulthood.
- Lice are not airborne. They cannot jump, hop, or fly. The main way head lice spread is from close, prolonged head-to-head contact and, less commonly, through brushes, hats, helmets, or hair accessories.
- Lice are visible to the naked eye. As long as you have decent vision, you should be able to see the tiny bugs or nits in a child's hair, though it might take some concentration and searching to find them.
- Nits are distinguishable from dandruff. Nits look like small white or yellow-brown specks and are firmly attached to the hair near the scalp. They will not brush away like dandruff.
- Nits have favourite spots on the head. The easiest place to find them is at the hairline at the back of the neck or behind the ears.
- Your child's haircut doesn't matter. Buzzing your child's hair doesn't protect them from lice; they can lay nits on a quarter-inch of hair.
- There's a reason it's called head lice. Head lice do not travel to other parts of the body.
- Your dog isn't the problem. Head lice are spread from person to person, not from an animal to a person or vice versa.
- Dirty hair isn't the culprit. Surprisingly, head lice like a clean head the best.
- They need a head to survive. Lice have very short lifespans and must feed frequently to stay alive. Typically, they only live about two days when they're off the head, which means you don't have to worry about bedding, upholstery, or clothing items your lice-infected child hasn't touched since last week.
- Just because one child has lice doesn't mean the rest of the family will get it, too. Unless you've had head-to-head contact with a child who has been infected with lice or have shared head coverings or hair accessories, you're probably clear.
- Not all schools require you to keep a lice-infected student home. The American Academy of Pediatrics and National Association of School Nurses have discouraged "no-nit" policies, stating that students who still have nits in their hair can't return to school. Check with your school to see what its policy states.
- You don't need to go overboard to remove lice from your home. Every day, wash the clothing, bedding, brushes, and hair accessories your child has used during their lice infestation. Put stuffed animals in the dryer to kill active lice, or simply put them in a bag for a few days, after which any lice will be dead. You don't need to replace furniture or mattresses or wash your child's whole wardrobe. Remember, lice don't live long off heads.
- There are multiple ways to remove lice. Drugstore remedies may work for most people, but there are also natural remedies and many professional services that will do the stressful work of removing nits for around $200-$300, which many parents feel is a small price to pay for the peace of mind that the lice have been vanquished, and a head lice comb can also do the trick.