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The Truth about Lice

"a real head scratcher"
By: Vanessa ValenzuelaThe Truth about Lice

I was in the first grade when I discovered I had head lice. I had it after an outdoor camping weekend with my fellow girl scouts in school. Our patrol troop had 10 members and we all had to share a small tent. I think we all had head lice after that weekend, because I remembered talking about how annoyingly itchy our scalps were several days later.

I never thought how serious head lice could affect a human being at first, but after learning about what happened to that first grader who had to go to the doctor, I swore to myself that I’d never have head lice again!  I got so scared it triggered a paranoia that caused me to check my comb for lice everyday for several years.

So what exactly are these nasty organisms and how do we get rid of them? Let’s get to know more about these pesky crawlers.

Head lice up close

The medical term for head lice infestation is called “pediculosis”. It comes from the tiny, wingless parasite’s scientific name Pediculus humanus capitis, which literally translates to its household name. Head lice feed on human blood by biting into the scalp or skin.

An adult louse (i.e. singular term for lice) can grow to about 2 to 3mm long - about the size of a sesame seed. They reproduce by laying tiny dandruff-like eggs called “nits” on the hair shaft, close to the scalp where it’s nice and warm. These nits hatch into baby lice called “nymphs” within 1 to 2 weeks after they're laid.

Almost one in 10 children who go to school gets head lice at least once in their lifetime. It has been reported in the US that 6 to 12 million American kids get head lice every year. It is highly contagious especially in preschool and elementary school kids aged 3 to 10 years old because kids are used to having close physical contact with each other when they play and sharing personal stuff like combs, clips, towels, and hats is quite common.

How do you get rid of them?

Okay, there are basically a number of medications – both topical and oral – that can address pediculosis. Here are some of them:

1. Solutions that contain Pyrethrin–often combined with piperonylbutoxide. It has been reported to be safe and effective against crawling lice. However, this solution does not kill unhatched nits, so normally it is advised that a second treatment be applied 7 to 10 days after.

2. Solutions that contain Permethrins –Permethrins have been found to be safe and effective against crawling lice and can continue to kill even newly hatched nits several days after treatment.

3. Silicone oils that contain Dimethicones – this solution coats the scalp surfaces and works by asphyxiating the louse until it dies.

4. Lindane shampoo - a prescription drug that is commonly given as treatment for head lice. When used as prescribed, this treatment can be safe and effective in just a single application.

5. Malathion - another topical prescription drug recommended as treatment of head lice. It’s actually a combination drug and is mixed with terpineol and isopropyl alcohol. When used as directed, it is said to be safe and effective.

6. Ivermectin – an oral medication used primarily to treat worm infestations. It has been found to be a more effective treatment against resistant head lice infestations than Malathion, according to the New England Journal of Medicine research article published March 2010.                                                                                   

Preventing reinfestation

No matter how effective your treatment is, head lice will keep coming back if you don’t ensure that your family members won’t be exposed to the parasite again. Here are some tips to keep your family away from pediculosis:

1. Change all bed sheets, linens and pillow cases with fresh ones. Wash the used sheets in soap and hot water to kill crawling lice.

2. Vacuum carpets, upholstered seats, sofas, curtains, throw pillows where your family members hangout often.

3. Wash all clothes previously used by infested family members in soap and hot water. Don’t leave laundry lying around, unwashed.

4. Wash and inspect brushes, combs, clips, hats and other head accessories to ensure there are no nits or lice hiding

5. Tell your children to avoid borrowing stuff from their classmates in school, especially those that can carry new lice like hairbrushes and hats.

It will be challenging indeed, but if you care for your household members, you’ll be compelled to heed all these measures to protect your family from head lice re-infestation.

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