Head Lice & Bed Bugs: What you Need to Know

Julie Weber Trending Topics

QUICK FACTS

    • Save the mayonnaise and butter for the dinner table! There is no clear evidence that suffocation technique is an effective form of treatment for head lice.
    • Head lice & bed bugs do not usually transmit disease, but can be very difficult to deal with.
    • Program the Poison Help number into your phone for immediate assistance: 1-800-222-1222

Head Lice

Head lice are only about the size of a sesame seed, but despite their tiny size, they are the source of a great deal of anxiety in schools and at home.  There is a social stigma associated with having lice, but the truth is, head lice are not a health hazard, and having head lice has nothing to do with cleanliness or the lack of it. Head lice are transmitted from one person to another by direct head to head contact.  Lice do not hop or fly from one head to another, and they are not known to transmit disease.

Female lice deposit eggs very close to the scalp where they are difficult to detect.  The eggs are able to camouflage or change color to match that of the hair.  The eggs stay close to the scalp where they incubate and hatch.  After the egg hatches, it leaves behind an empty casing, otherwise known as a nit.  Unlike active lice, nits are easier to see because they are found further down the hair shaft and the casing is white which stands out, especially against darker colored hair.  Once nits are found in the hair, the lice infestation had actually been active for a month or longer prior – the eggs and insects were living undetected the whole time!

Many schools have adopted a “No Nits” policy, not allowing students back to school until they are free of nits.  Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association of School Nurses have put out guidelines stating that no child should be restricted from school attendance because of lice.  Instead,  it is recommended parents to be notified by phone or a letter at the end of the school day stating that their child requires prompt treatment for the head lice. 

Although it is not likely to “catch” lice from using a hair brush or wearing a hat from someone who has lice, it is best to teach children not to share personal items such as combs, brushes, towels, and hats.  It seems impossible to prevent all head lice infestations, especially in young children who frequently have head to head contact with playmates.  Parents, day care providers, and educators will be better prepared to find a head lice infestation early if they know the signs to watch for when the children are in their care.

Signs:

  • Appearance of lice eggs, or small white objects in your hair
  • Possible increased scratching of the head
  • Difficulty sleeping due to the itching
  • Small red bumps or sores noted on the head from the increased scratching

Inspection Tips:

  • Stay calm
  • Check behind the ears and near the neckline at the back of the head
  • Check all family members

If lice are found, treatment should be started as soon possible to minimize further transmission.

Treatment

There are many options to treat head lice, some can be purchased over-the counter while others are prescribed by a doctor.  If head lice is discovered, the initial treatment should be with an over-the-counter product, such as Rid® or Nix®.  Sometimes the first lice treatment cycle does not work, and there are many reasons why this might be so: 

  • Before using any lice product, read the directions carefully and follow them exactly.  The over-the-counter products require a second application, but if itis done earlier or later than recommended (or not at all) the lice may not be completely gone. 
  • Using a hair conditioner prior to the treatment can act as a barrier that keeps the lice medication from adhering to the hair shaft, thus reducing the effectiveness of the treatment. 
  • If the hair is shampooed too soon after application, it can remove the residual medication and stop the continued killing effect on lice. 
  • There are times when the lice are resistant to the medication being used, in this case it is time to move on to a different medication. 
  • As unfair as it seems, sometimes an individual becomes re-infested quickly after being treated.

General Safety Guidelines:

Read the directions on the package before treating hair and follow them exactly as written. IMPORTANT: The medication should be applied only by an adult.  Never allow children to help apply the medicine.  If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, do not use or apply the products without first checking with a doctor. Contact the pediatrician about using any head lice product on children under the age of 2 years.

Do not leave children unattended with the medicine on their hair, and never place a plastic bag on your child’s head during treatment, this can increase the absorption of the medication through the scalp. Store head lice products as you would any medication, up high, out of reach and sight of children.

The medication should be rinsed off the hair using warm (not hot!) water.  In order to minimize exposure of the other parts of the body to the medication, use the sink to rinse the hair instead of the shower or the bath tub.  The medication in head lice products is an insecticide and can be absorbed through the skin.  If the first treatment cycle does not work, contact your child’s pediatrician before beginning a second or third cycle.

Never use gasoline, kerosene or veterinary (products intended for use on animals) as treatment for lice.

Bed Bugs

Bed bugs have had a resurgence in the past decade.  These bugs are small, wingless, reddish-brown in color, and measure about the size of Abraham Lincoln’s head on a penny.  They are experts at hiding and secretly “hitchhike” their way from one place to another, finding refuge in places such as in the seams and folds of luggage, folded clothing, and bedding.

Infestations of bed bugs typically occur where people sleep.  They hide during the day time hours and become active at night when they feed on the blood of people and animals while they are sleeping.  Bed bug bites appear as a red spot on the skin. They are not known to transmit disease, but can be very annoying.  Bites are usually extremely itchy, resulting in excessive scratching that can interfere with sleep and lead to a secondary skin infection.  Medical attention may be needed in the case of excessive itching, secondary infection or allergic reaction to the bites.

Treatment for bed bug bites includes:

  • Avoid scratching the bites
  • Keep the skin clean by applying antiseptic creams or lotions
  • Use antihistamines to help with the itching 

The bed bug infestation is typically treated by spraying an insecticide.  All attempts to minimize exposure to the insecticide should be made by following the instructions closely.  Never apply a product intended for outside use to the inside of your home. Always wait for the recommended time before going back into the sprayed area.  Bed bug infestations can be difficult to eliminate from your home. A professional pest control company is often needed for their expertise in dealing with bed bug infestations.

For any questions or concerns about lice or bed bugs, call the Poison Help line at 1-800-222-1222. Specially trained nurses and pharmacists are available 24/7/365 to answer your questions. The service is free and confidential.

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