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The not-so-nice world of head lice

A group of kids gather around a book, their heads close together.

Aug. 26, 2022—Head lice aren't picky creatures. No matter how well you clean your home or how good your personal hygiene, they can still get in your hair.

In fact, head lice affect millions of school-aged children each year. So as a new school year starts, learn what you can do to spare your family some itching heads.

The facts of lice

Head lice are tiny bugs—about the size of a sesame seed. A single bug is called a louse and usually has a pale, gray body, although that can vary. These bugs feed on small amounts of blood from a person's scalp. But they can live one to two days without a meal while hanging out on things such as bedding and carpets.

Head lice don't jump, hop or fly. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the main way lice spread is from close, prolonged, head-to-head contact. There's also a chance that lice can spread through sharing personal items like combs and hats.

Keep lice at bay

To help reduce the risk of a lice outbreak in your family, follow these tips from the AAP.

Avoid hair-to-hair contact. Explain to kids that they shouldn't touch heads while playing with other children.

Don't share hair accessories. Although the risk is small, kids shouldn't share combs, brushes, hats, towels and hair accessories. Also, those items should be disinfected in hot water after being used by a person with lice.

Spot the signs

The main symptom of head lice is itching on the scalp where the lice have attached. You may also be able to see them attached to the hair near the scalp.

If you suspect your child has lice or your school has confirmed a case of it, talk to your child's doctor, who can properly diagnose head lice, prescribe medication and explain proper treatment for making the bugs go away.

Head lice don't carry any serious illnesses, but they should be treated to keep them from spreading.

After an outbreak

After treating your child for lice, try these tips to help stop the spread:

Put sleepovers on hold. Wait at least 48 hours after lice treatment (and after you can no longer spot living lice) before kids have any opportunity to share bedding, pillows or carpets.

Do what you can at home. Lice can be found in very clean homes, and extreme cleanup doesn't seem to stop their spread, according to the AAP. So what can you do?

  • Avoid beds, couches, pillows, carpets or stuffed animals that a person with lice has used.
  • Wash and dry pillowcases and other items that a person with lice used in the two days before treatment started. Use hot water (at least 130 degrees) and dry on high heat. If an item can't be washed, dry-clean it or store it in a sealed plastic bag for two weeks.
  • Don't use pest sprays or fogs. They're not healthy if inhaled or absorbed into the skin.
  • Make sure everyone in the house is checked for lice.
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