A PracticalDad Primer:  Headlice

Lice and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

You’ll get used to the various gross things of childhood – vomit, stool, blood and snot – but nothing will get to you like headlice.  Even if you don’t get it from the kids, you’ll be scratching your head and it won’t be in surprise.

Charlie’s got cooties!  Charlie’s got cooties! is a common memory from elementary school and Charlie hated it as much as the next kid.  In today’s world, when a school gets wind of a child with lice, the administration will send home a note apprising other families that there’s a problem.  A necessary part of this letter is the reminder that having lice is not emblematic of a poor household or social problems.  Headlice are a nasty insect that can be passed from one person to another through physical contact and a kid’s homelife is not an indicator.  Despite being highly egocentric creatures, kids will share the most amazing things – hats, combs, pencils and even already-chewed gum – and it’s this thoughtlessness that can create the problem.

The Deal with Lice

Headlice are insects that survive and thrive by living on the blood of a human host.  They live in the hair of the host, where they lay their eggs – called "nits" – attached to the individual strands of hair.  They prefer a moister environment so that they’ll typically be found near the ears.

Lice don’t jump or fly and it doesn’t take long for them to move; a louse can move almost nine inches in the course of a minute.  They are passed physically from one person to another, typically via the sharing of personal items like hats, scarves and combs.  As an example, Johnny can get a lice transfer by wearing Bob’s hat but won’t have a problem sitting next to Bob on the school bus.  The louse isn’t going to walk across the bus seat to Johnny since that would entail leaving his preferred habitat.  He is a smart and lazy little bugger.

The typical louse is damned near indestructible, able to survive underwater for hours as well as away from a human host for up to a full 24 hours.  This is why simply taking a hot shower is inadequate for the problem.  They’re difficult to find unless you’re looking for them since an adult louse, eating all it’s Wheaties, can grow to a whopping 1/8" in length.  The nit itself is tiny, perhaps 2 mm long, and can only be found with a focused search of the scalp.

Your child won’t notice one louse and will only start to scratch after fully infested, typically in a month’s time.  Let’s do the math.  An adult louse has a lifespan of about 30 days.  It can lay eggs after reaching maturity in about 8 days and will lay an average of 6 eggs each day until it dies.  No, there’s no menopause here.  After eight days, the louse lays its first six eggs with another six eggs each day thereafter.  By the time Johnny has reached the 14 day mark, 42 eggs have been laid and at 16 days, the first days hatch to begin a new lifecycle in which those six now-mature lice hatch about 36 eggs each day.  I’ll spare you the math since I can’t count that high, but you get the picture. 


Finding the Problem

Apart from a barber/stylist finding an infestation – which happens – the best sign of lice is when you note the child persistently scratching their heads.  They’ll even do it in their sleep without awakening.  The problem is also found by school nurses in class examinations performed periodically.  This isn’t necessarily a foolproof method since the staff are moving quickly to cover a large number of children in a short period of time.

Handling an Infestation/Shaving the Head

The first thing to remember is that you, the adult, have to remain calm and measured; you might want to start scratching your own head and make remarks – or worse – but you cannot. the reason for the calm is that the child must remain relatively still.  If you have a conniption fit, the kid probably will, too.

The first question is whether you should just shave the child’s head.  Not really an option if it’s your daughter, but it is a possibility if it’s a boy and the weather’s warm.  Barbers and stylists will not want this job since it raises the risk of their shop becoming infested, so shaving the head would be up to you.  Electric clippers are available at most pharmacies and box stores.  Here are some things to remember if you opt to shave the head:

  • Do the job outside or in a garage so that the hair and lice are out of the house;
  • Shaving the head will remove nits – attached to the strands of the hair – but not necessarily the lice, which will have to removed by hand;
  • Even after the hair is removed and your child’s lice removed, you should still make it a priority to recheck them for several days.

Handling an Infestation/Keeping the Hair

Treatment of headlice takes a two-prong approach.  The first is treatment with a shampoo to help kill the nits and lice and involves chemical based products such as Rid and Nix (including the chemical pyrethrin) or Kwell (including the chemical lindane).  The second – and most important – prong is to physically examine the scalp and hair. 

Yes, this is where the term nitpicking comes from.  And the need for this, despite living in a quick-fix society, is that lice are increasingly resistant to both pyrethrin an lindane.  You can use the shampoos but if the lice are resistant, then the shampoo is useless.  So resign yourself to nitpicking and doing it scrupulously.


Before you start the process of examining the head, get organized.

  1. Find a well-lit spot in which you can work.  Since this is a time-consuming process, move lights in front of the TV and find something that can keep your child relatively still and occupied while you work.
  2. Have a vacuum cleaner at hand so that you can vacuum the floor immediately upon finishing, catching up any lice that might have fallen off the scalp.
  3. Keep a bowl filled with rubbing alcohol handy to take the lice/nits that you remove.  Remember that lice can survive in water for about half a day so you want them dead and immobile immediately.
  4. Have the appropriate comb for use in checking.  The teeth of the standard comb are not close enough together to catch the nits on the hair; lice-shampoo can be purchased in kits which have an appropriate comb enclosed.  Wash the comb in rubbing alcohol or boil in water when you’re finished.
  5. For longer hair, have hair clips to clip together those segments of hair that have already been checked.

When you start, find a section of the scalp to examine and run the comb through the hair, pulling the comb upward towards you.  As you find lice, remove them immediately from the scalp and place them in the nearby bowl and then return to the section being searched.

In this process, you’ll find nits typically attached to ahri strands about 1/2" from the scalp.  The nit can be distinguished from dandruff  by the readiness with which it comes off of the strand since the nits are literally glued on when laid.  Remember that the nit is oval and can vary from white to tan , depending on whether it’s an old egg sac or a live, unhatched egg.  When you encounter a nit, remove it and place it immediatley in the bowl, returning to the same segment.

Being methodical and persistent if essential in this process.  Be ready to repeat this process again and again; you’ll only know you’re finished when you find nothing on a thorough examination.

When you’re finished, immediately send the child for a bath or shower and vacuum the surrounding area. 

Household Concerns

What also makes a lice-problem so nerve-wracking is that it takes over your life and household.

  • Since lice are mobile and can live a day without a human host, consign yourself to changing the bedding daily.
  • Put the pillows through the dryer on a high heat setting before use.
  • Vacuum the mattresses, furniture and carpets daily.  If you aren’t going to change the bag any more frequently, keep the vacuum cleaner in the garage or basement and out of the family living area.
  • Stuffed animals and non-essential pillows should be bagged and placed away for about two weeks.
  • Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about pets since the lice only feed on a human host.

You and your family will survive this problem; there are worse and you can take small comfort in that.  But it will require a degree of self-discipline and self-control that goes beyond the typical, so be sure to get rest and prepare for a long haul.

In my family, with two kids simultaneously infested, it was three weeks.

For further information, go to www.headlice.org

Photo of Adult Louse courtesy of Rahul Goyal

Photo of Nit courtesy of Jon Law

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