Ugh. Lice. The thought makes parents shudder and second guess themselves. While the insects seem like a perfect proof point for bad hygiene, how well parents wash their kids’ hair has little to nothing to do with how the pesky pediculus humanus capitis are contracted.
“Lice literally need a bridge to cross over from one head to another. Our hair acts as that bridge,” says Nancy Fields of Lice Happens Maryland. “They can’t fly. Even though they have six legs, they don’t have muscles like fleas to jump or hop. But they do have claws specifically designed to hang on to human hair. And they’re very good at holding on.”
One of the best ways to get lice, then, is to simply be a kid. Things like roughhousing, snuggling, putting heads together when coloring with crayons, whispering secrets — all very normal activities for kids — are prime lice migration opportunities. Fields notes that anytime hair is touching hair, there’s a risk. “Children have very tiny personal space bubbles. They interact with everyone really closely,” she says. “As adults grow, we have a bigger space bubble. You’re not really having hair-to-hair contacts with many adults.”
To help prevent lice, children with long hair should tie it back. Just as dangling hair gets in food, glue, and other everything else, it comes in contact with other kids’ hair. Kids should also be encouraged not to share things that go head-to-head, including hats, headbands, hair accessories, pillows or combs.
There are also ways to repel lice. Parents can use a drop of natural mint, menthol or lavender oil during a shampoo, or a commercially available lice repellent shampoos (though no lice-killing shampoo unless they have lice.) “It’s not a suit of armor, but it helps,” Fields notes.
It’s important to note that it’s highly unlikely a child will host lice that are transferred from sitting on the same couch or other passive methods. Essentially, as soon as the lice leave the scalp they start dying. “If a louse ended up off the human head, the important thing to know is it doesn’t have sensors to find a human head again,” explains Fields. “So it’s very perilous for them to wander off a human head.”
How to Prevent Head Lice
- Children with long hair should tie it back.
- Don’t share hats, headbands, hair accessories, pillows, or combs
- Use lice repellant like natural mint, menthol, lavender oil, or commercially available lice repellent shampoos.
- Be vigilant during summer camps, sleepovers and holidays
- Use a nit comb to check children often, especially when they’re out of the bath or shower
That said, parents should be aware of prevention techniques during summer camps, sleepovers, holidays and other events when kids are around lots of other kids. They should also check for lice often and look for the symptoms the critters have colonized a kids scalp.
The symptoms of lice infestation are range from subtle to spine-tingling. Some children may scratch at the base of the neck or on the scalp. Because lice are most active at night, many children may complain of having trouble sleeping. Most disturbing, a child might suggest they feel like something is moving on their head.
It’s important to note that visually, lice are most likely to be caught as nits — the egg a louse is born from. If parents see flecks of dandruff on a child’s hair that doesn’t flake away when rubbed with a finger, it could be a nit. Lice less than two weeks old will be hard to see, they only look like bugs for the last two weeks of their lives. So catching the nits is the best way to go, though It may require a fine-toothed nit comb dragged through a kid’s wet hair.
Lice have different symptoms for different people, says Maria Botham, founder, and CEO of Hair Fairies. Some kids may never scratch even if deeply infected. Others may go nuts with just a single bug.
Botham, who is in the business of removing lice for pay, says it is so tough to get rid of, but not impossible. “Head lice is one of those bugs that’s going to live through a nuclear bomb. It’s very hard to eradicate,” she says. “It is a manual, laborious process. You have to pull every little egg off and every bug off. And those bugs are tricky critters. They know how to hide. Just when you think you’re done, you realize you’re not done.”
If one child has lice, the family needs to go into prevention mode. It only takes one female crossing over to create a colony on each family member’s head, regardless of how popular they are.