Understanding Head Lice
When someone discovers they or their child have head lice the initial reaction is almost always the same, panic. Dealing with head lice can be downright scary, primarily because people tend not to talk about how to deal with head lice until it happens to them, and by then they are frantic and overwhelmed. Understanding head lice BEFORE it happens can reduce some of the fear and anxiety associated with an infestation.
Lice are parasitic insects. This means that lice need some kind of host to provide an environment where they can survive and proliferate. Head lice have evolved with humans for hundreds of thousands of years, forming a parasitic relationship with us to the point that the only environment lice can live is on a human scalp with hair. They can’t live in our homes, or in schools, or on surfaces. Lice live in our hair and feed from our scalps. They have six clawed legs designed specifically to attach to human hairs close to the scalp where the lice can feed on blood.
Understanding the Head Lice Life Cycle
The life of a louse (singular for lice) starts as an egg or nit. Female lice lay about a half-dozen eggs every day. The nit is a tiny brownish-gray speck about 1 millimeter long with a glue-like surface. Nits are often hard to see, especially in darker hair. Removing them can be quite difficult. (It’s because of lice eggs we get the term, “nitpicker”, which describes someone with extreme attention to detail). Nits hatch after 7-10 days and begin life as immature nymphs. After about 10 days, they grow to full size, at which time they can mate and the mature female begins to lay eggs.
Lice need to eat several times a day. They move onto the scalp and pierce it to draw blood. Lice can’t survive off the human head for more than 24 hours. This is important to know when dealing with an infestation because there are some misconceptions about how lice spread and how to respond to an infestation. Lice cannot “fall” onto pillows, sheets, stuffed animals, or other bedding unless the hair that they are attached to falls. And even then they can’t live on these surfaces, nor can they survive on hats, scarves, furniture, or carpet. They also can’t live on pets or any other animals. Nits can’t live without a human host. The warmth of the body provides the needed heat for nits to gestate. Nits that are removed or that fall via lost hair die before they hatch.
Understanding Head Lice Removal in Your Home
All of this means that if you or your child has lice, you don’t need to fumigate your house or pack all of the stuffed animals away in plastic bags for weeks. Wash the clothing, bedding and towels that the person with lice has used within the past 48 hours and dry those items on high heat. While it’s highly unlikely that there are any lice or eggs on a stuffed animal, those that have been kept on the bed can be put in the dryer for about 20 minutes on high heat, or can be set aside for 48 hours. It is also important to wash any brushes or other hair accessories that may have been used by the person with lice. The CDC recommends washing these items in hot water (at least 130 degrees). Hair accessories and brushes can also be placed in the freezer for 10 hours. As an extra precaution, other places where the person with lice has put his or her head where hairs with lice may have fallen – hats, backpacks, car seats, etc.- can be vacuumed or lint-rolled using a sticky lint roller.
Lice can’t fly nor can they jump. They only spread by moving from one person’s hair to another person’s hair via hair-to-hair contact, such as during a hug or while taking a selfie. In some instances lice can be spread by shared use of combs or brushes.
At the end of the day, if you or someone in your life has lice, don’t panic. With multiple treatment options, we have solutions for every family and budget. Find a clinic near you with our clinic locator.