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Treat lice infestations quickly and thoroughly
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Head lice have an uncomfortable way of finding a new home regardless of their host's age, social status or personal hygiene, and with school about to start, chances are good that many Mississippi families will encounter these annoying parasites in the months ahead.
Blake Layton, an entomologist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said there is no shame in getting head lice.
“The lice don't care whether you wash your hair once a day or once a month. They don't care whether your home is filthy or immaculate,” Layton said. “All that really matters to the lice is that you have hair and are alive, and thus have warm blood to feed on.”
People become infested through personal contact with someone with head lice. Lice can be transferred to a new victim on a comb, hat or coat recently worn or used by someone with lice.
“Children are more likely than adults to come into close contact with one another while playing or sharing hats, combs or other personal items,” Layton said.
Lice are grey, blood-sucking insects about one-tenth of an inch long. They live three to four weeks as adults, and a female can lay 50 to 150 eggs in her life. Females use strong glue to attach their white, oblong eggs to the base of hair. Eggs, known as nits, hatch in five to 10 days.
“The empty eggshells remain tightly glued to the hair and move away from the scalp as the hair grows,” Layton said. “Nits more than one-quarter of an inch away from the base of the hair have either hatched already or are not going to hatch.”
Nits hatch into nymphs that look like small versions of adult lice, and they mature in three weeks. Adults have six legs that end in strong, curved claws that allow them to cling tightly to human hair. Their sucking mouthparts allow them to bite and extract blood.
Their bites cause the itching and scratching that accompany a head lice infestation. They do not transmit disease, but secondary infections can set in with excessive scratching.
Lice only live on people, and they prefer to stay on the head. They need a constant supply of human blood and won't live more than a day or two without it.
“When a louse falls off a human head, it wants nothing more than to get back on a human head as quickly as possible,” Layton said.
Most lice infestations begin with a single louse. This louse's feeding rarely causes enough discomfort to be recognized. It often takes several weeks from initial infestation until that louse has reproduced for a lice infestation to become apparent.
“That means if you discover a heavy infestation of head lice in your daughter's hair three days after the big church youth retreat, she did not get them there, although she may have infested others who came in contact with her,” Layton said.
Treat lice by treating the head. It is best to treat everyone in the family at the same time, or the lice will simply move from one family member to another.
“The two basic methods of controlling lice are physical removal and treatment with an approved insecticide,” Layton said. “With the exception of completely shaving the head, neither will provide complete control every time, so the best approach is to do both, even though it will require a lot of time and effort.”
Follow label recommendations on over-the-counter and prescription lice insecticides. Follow instructions when using a special nit comb to physically remove the lice. This is tedious and time consuming, but a key step in treating head lice.
Other steps to follow in treating a lice infestation are to notify everyone exposed to the infected person; wash bed linens and toys children sleep with in hot water; disinfect hairbrushes, hats and other items that come in contact with heads; re-treat in seven to 10 days if using over-the-counter treatments; and regularly check for reinfestations.
Jane Clary, Extension health specialist, said children ages 3 to 11 are the most common victims.
“September and October, when children go back to school, are the prime months for a child to get a lice infestation,” Clary said.
Prescription lice treatments are more potent than over-the-counter products, but either should be used in combination with combing the nits out of the hair. Seek a doctor's advice on treating children under age 3 with a lice infestation. Consult a doctor if the lice infestation is not resolved in two weeks and the scalp has a rash infected with pus or honey-colored scabs.
She urged those trying to get rid of lice to avoid home or folk remedies.
“The best methods are to use the over-the-counter or prescription treatments and to comb the nits out,” Clary said. “You might have to use olive oil to help loosen some of the nits from the hair, but stick with the products that are made for lice treatment.”