The head louse is a tiny, wingless parasitic insect that lives among human hairs and feeds on tiny amounts of blood drawn from the scalp. Lice are a very common problem, especially for kids. They are contagious, annoying, and sometimes tough to get rid of. But while they are frustrating to deal with, lice are not dangerous. They don’t spread disease, although their bites can make a child’s scalp itchy and irritated, and scratching can lead to infection. It is best to treat head lice quickly once they are found because they can spread easily from person to person.
Signs of Head Lice
Although they are very small, lice can be seen by the naked eye. Here are things to look for:
Lice eggs (called nits): These look like tiny yellow, tan, or brown dots before they hatch. Lice lay nits on hair shafts close to the scalp, where the temperature is perfect for keeping warm until they hatch. Nits look sort of like dandruff, only they can’t be removed by brushing or shaking them off. Unless the infestation is heavy, it is more common to see nits in a child’s hair than it is to see live lice crawling on the scalp. Lice eggs hatch within 1 to 2 weeks after they are laid. After hatching, the remaining shell looks white or clear and stays firmly attached to the hair shaft. This is when it’s easiest to spot them, as the hair is growing longer and the egg shell is moving away from the scalp.
Scratching: With lice bites come itching and scratching. This is actually due to a reaction to the saliva of lice. However, the itching may not always start right away – that depends on how sensitive a child’s skin is to the lice. It can sometimes take weeks for kids with lice to start scratching. They may complain, though, of things moving around on or tickling their heads.
Small red bumps or sores from scratching. For some kids, the irritation is mild; for others, a more bothersome rash may develop. Excessive scratching can lead to a bacterial infection (this can cause swollen lymph glands and red, tender skin that might have crusting and oozing). If your doctor thinks this is the case, he or she may treat the infection with an oral antibiotic.
You may be able to see the lice or nits by parting your child’s hair into small sections and checking for lice and nits with a fine-tooth comb on the scalp, behind the ears, and around the nape of the neck (it is rare for them to be found on eyelashes or eyebrows).
See your doctor if your child is constantly scratching his or her head or complains of an itchy scalp that won’t go away. The doctor should be able to tell you if your child is infested with lice and needs to be treated. Not all kids have the classic symptoms of head lice and some can be symptom-free.