The Lowdown on Lice

Head lice are an inconvenience, but not a danger.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has released a new clinical report that may change school lice policies nationwide. The bottom line? Lice are an inconvenient nuisance, but they are no reason to keep your child home from school. Here’s the lowdown.

What Exactly Are Head Lice?

Head lice are tiny, wingless parasitic insects that live on the scalp and can be spread by close, head-to-head contact with other people. Lice are a common problem among kids ages 3 to 12. They are not dangerous and do not spread disease, but they do spread easily. The bites of lice may cause a child’s scalp to itch and become inflamed. Persistent scratching can lead to irritation and infection.

Lice are grayish-white or tan and are about the size of a sesame seed. They are tiny, but they can be seen with the naked eye.

Signs and Symptoms of Lice

If you suspect lice, examine your child’s scalp and look for the following:

Nits: Nits are lice eggs that look like tiny yellow or brown dots before they hatch. Nits will be on the hair shaft close to the skin’s surface. They look like dandruff, only they cannot be removed by brushing or shaking.

Lice: Lice are grayish-white or tan and are about the size of a sesame seed. It is more common to find nits, but if the infestation is heavy, you may see lice as well.

Scratching: If your child is constantly scratching his scalp, he may have lice. He may also complain of “tickling” on his scalp.

Red bumps: All that scratching can lead to skin irritation. Check your child’s scalp for redness, bumps, or irritation.

Treating Lice

If your child has lice, don’t panic. Very few households survive the childhood years without at least one experience with lice. There are several medicated shampoos on the market used to treat lice. Some of these are available over the counter, while others require a prescription.

Follow the product directions exactly in order to ensure that the treatment works properly and to avoid side effects. Lice are persistent and more often than not, you’ll need to repeat the treatment after several days.

Never use kerosene or gasoline to treat lice.

Changing School Policy

For years, any sign of lice resulted in banishment from school, but the new AAP report states that no healthy child should miss school because of lice and that “no-nit” policies should be abolished from the schools. While many parents are wary of this new policy, the report states that lice are annoying, but not dangerous. It typically takes about a month before a child starts itching as a result of lice—in other words, that child has already been in school with nits for a month, so the “no-nit” policy is futile.

Yes, lice are contagious. Yes, they are a nuisance. But, it’s unrealistic to expect that they can be avoided altogether. Lice are spread by close head-to-head contact. Teach your children to avoid sharing combs, brushes, and hats. However, never forego shared safety equipment (such as batting helmets) out of a fear of lice.

The bottom line is that lice lurk everywhere—in movie theaters, on playgrounds, and in dressing rooms. Do your best, but accept that these little critters are often an unfortunate part of the childhood experience.