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Your Health

Effective treatments prevent spread of head lice in children

Photo By: Town Crier File photo
Photo Town Crier File Photo

Head lice are primarily spread through contact among school-age children. Companies such as LoveBugs in Los Altos, above, offer head-lice treatments in lieu of over-the-counter remedies.

If you’ve ever looked at your child’s hair in the sunlight and seen the quick movement of little critters against his or her scalp, you know what it’s like to realize that your child has contracted head lice. It’s one of those moments most parents don’t want to relive.

Head lice are a nuisance, but they don’t pose a health hazard, they aren’t a sign of poor hygiene and they don’t spread disease. If your child has lice, there are effective, safe and inexpensive ways to treat the problem.

Head lice are primarily spread by head-to-head contact. They are common in school-age children who huddle together while reading, working on school projects or participating in circle time. Lice can’t jump or fly to another person’s head.

Head lice can be tricky to see because they’re tiny, avoid light and move quickly. A common symptom of head lice is an itchy scalp, but that can also be caused by dandruff, eczema or an allergic reaction.

To confirm whether or not your child has lice, have him or her sit in a brightly lit room or out in the sun. Part the hair and look at your child’s scalp to find live lice and lice eggs, called “nits.” Nits are tiny white or tan, oval-shaped beads that are firmly attached to the hair approximately one-quarter inch from the scalp. It’s easy to confuse nits with other things such as dandruff or specks of dirt. If you can remove the particle easily, it’s probably not a nit.

It’s important to start treatment as soon as possible to limit the lice spreading to others. Start with an over-the-counter shampoo treatment that contains pyrethrum and piperonlyl butoxide, a naturally occurring chemical from the chrysanthemum flower (RID or TripleX), or 1 percent permethrin (Nix). These treatments are safe and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for children 2 and older.

These head lice treatments kill live lice, but they may not kill all the nits. You’ll need to repeat the treatment seven to 10 days after the first treatment. You can also use a nit comb after the hair has been treated to help ensure that all the eggs are removed.

If an over-the-counter treatment doesn’t get rid of the lice, talk to your child’s doctor about prescription treatments. If you want to avoid chemicals, your doctor can provide guidance. There are companies that will handle lice removal, but it’s best to talk to your doctor about their methods.

Lice are primarily spread by head-to-head contact, so your main focus should be on treating family members with lice. The following may also help.

• Wash your child’s clothes, towels, hats and bed linens in hot water and dry them using high heat.

• Place and store items that can’t be washed in plastic bags for two weeks.

• Vacuum the floor and furniture, particularly where your child has sat or played.

Your child should go back to school after one treatment with an anti-lice shampoo. Some schools have a “no nits” policy, but the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages this, as it’s important for children not to miss school, and nits are not contagious.

It’s difficult to protect your child from being exposed to lice. But while these little critters pose an inconvenience, they don’t pose a health threat and there are many effective treatments.

Dr. Swati Pandya is a board-certified pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s West Valley Center.

The Palo Alto Medical Foundation and column editor Arian Dasmalchi provide this monthly column.

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