Selfies are a great way to spread head lice.

It’s that time of year again. Students in Greenville, TX have packed their backpacks and are headed back to school. That means lots of exciting things – like learning and football season and reconnecting with friends. But it also means early mornings, stress about grades, and, far too often…head lice.

What are Lice?

Lice are parasitic insects that, like mosquitoes, make their meals of human blood. But unlike mosquitoes, lice live on humans instead of flying off when their belly is full. This means they snack all day and all night. And their bite causes a ferocious itch.

There are three kinds of lice that affect humans. Body lice live on clothing and make their way onto the human host just for feedings. These lice are the only lice that cause disease in humans, and fortunately they aren’t a big problem in this area. They are more commonly found in crowded unsanitary conditions like those produced by war – think military trenches and refugee camps.

Pubic lice affect areas with pubic hair and other coarse hair like that found on the chest and underarms. They are spread through body-to-body contact – almost always sexual contact. Fortunately, pubic lice do not cause disease. However, other diseases might be spread along with body lice, so anyone who has pubic lice should be test for other sexually transmitted infections. This is not a big problem with school-aged children.

Head lice, however, are downright commonplace in schools today. The CDC estimates there are 12 million cases of head lice among children aged three to eleven each year in the U.S. And these kids can – and often do – bring the head lice home and spread them to other family members.

Head lice do not spread disease, and it is no longer considered a reason to keep children out of school. Even so, no one wants head lice hanging around any longer than possible. There are some things you can do to find them, treat them, and best of all prevent your child (and therefore your family) from ever getting them.

How to Detect Head Lice

The best way to detect lice is to find a live one. This is harder than it sounds. Lice are sneaky little critters who blend into the hair and avoid the light. The simplest way to find one is to coat the hair with creamy conditioner, and then use a lice comb to comb through the hair. Be sure to scrape the comb against the scalp because lice like to live right next to the warm skin. Then wipe the comb on a white towel to look for the bugs.

If you find even a single louse, that means you have lice and should treat for them. If you don’t find one, there are other clues to look for.

Chances are you found out about a possible lice problem from the school nurse who discovered nits on your child’s head. Nits are the eggs laid by lice. They are tiny white specks that look a lot like dandruff. You can tell the difference because nits are attached to the hair shaft, so they don’t just brush away like dandruff. In addition, lice lay their eggs at the spot the hair enters the head, so baby lice can eat immediately after they hatch. Look for them as close to the scalp as possible.

Now, nits only mean that you’ve had lice – you may or may not still have them. But it’s a good clue and it probably won’t hurt to go ahead and treat for lice to help stop the cycle of spread.

How to Treat Head Lice

There are a couple of methods for treating lice. The first and most common is to purchase a lice shampoo off the shelf from the pharmacy. It is critical to use this exactly as directed because some lice shampoos don’t kill the eggs. You don’t want to  kill the lice, but leave eggs to hatch and start the cycle all over again. So repeat the treatment as directed to kill any lice that hatch after the initial treatment.

Resistance to lice shampoos is becoming common. If you try a lice shampoo and find the problem cropping up within a month after treatment, your lice may be resistant. Check with your doctor about prescription treatments that don’t have as much of a resistance problem in this case.

The second common method is nitpicking. This involves using a special comb and scraping out any lice or nits one tiny section of hair at a time. This is tedious and time-consuming. It’s also no longer necessary since lice are not a reason to stay out of school. But if you can’t stand the idea of nits remaining after you’ve done the lice treatment, then turn on Netflix and start picking.

Finally, professional services will come to your home and take care of the lice for you. Typically they require that each family member be checked, and they guarantee their results. This isn’t a cheap approach, as you might guess, but it offers peace-of-mind for those who need it.

How to Prevent Head Lice

Head-to-head contact is the primary means of spreading lice. So when children hug, lean in to look at a book together, or even cluster together to take a selfie, they set up the perfect route for the bugs to travel from head to head.

By keeping hair short or pulled back, you reduce the risk of the insects spreading. In addition, be sure your children know not to share things like hats and helmets. This is a less common mode of transmission but it can happen.

Do remember that head lice don’t mean that someone is dirty. In fact, lice prefer clean hair to dirty. It is important to let everyone your child has been in contact with know about the problem so they can address it before it gets out of hand. This is the best way to keep it from spreading.