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Head lice are blood-sucking insects that are found on people’s heads. The head louse is one of three kinds of lice, which live and feed on people. The head louse is found on the hair near the scalp, especially behind the ears and at the nape of the neck. Lice do not infest animals. Lice do not fly or jump, but crawl at high speed.

Anyone, no matter how clean they are, can get head lice. If the conditions are right and contact is made with an infested person or object, head lice can be passed on. Head lice infestations are often found in schools, camps, or institutions. Children frequently become infested and may then spread lice to other family members or playmates.

Head lice are spread by direct person-to-person contact. They can also spread by way of combs, brushes, caps, and bedding.

Itching and scratching of the scalp are usually the first signs of head lice. Sometimes scratching can cause a bacterial infection of the scalp.

Head lice are about the size of the head of a pin. They vary in color depending on the coloring of the infested person. Head lice appear darker on a person with dark hair and skin and lighter on a person with fair hair and skin. Live eggs (nits) are yellowish in color, oval shaped, and opaque. They are slightly larger than the lice and are firmly attached to the hair shaft by a cement-like substance. Sometimes hair casts, dandruff, and globules of hair spray may be mistaken for eggs. Empty egg (nit) cases will remain attached to the hair shaft after the lice have hatched. These empty cases are usually flattened, dull yellow, and papery. Sunlight or a very good light source and a magnifying glass are helpful for checking the hair and scalp for lice and nits.

Head lice need the warm, moist conditions of the scalp to live. Lice that fall off the scalp will die within 48 to 55 hours. Eggs (nits) that have fallen off the scalp do not hatch at or below room temperature and therefore do not play a major role in spreading head lice.

Medicated shampoos or cream rinses are used to kill lice. Some of these products may be purchased over the counter while others require a doctor’s prescription. Package instructions should be carefully followed. Some preparations require a second application. In addition, a nit comb should be used to remove all eggs. Complete nit removal is a VERY important part of the treatment process. If the nits are not completely removed, they can hatch and the lice will again be present.

Prompt and proper treatment is very important in preventing the spread of head lice and includes:

  • Prompt treatment with shampoo or crème rinse, following package instructions
  • Retreat if directed by package instructions
  • Egg (nit) removal
  • Launder clothing and bedding in HOT water (130 deg. F) and/or dry at high heat for 20 minutes
  • Dry clean items that cannot be washed or dried, or place these items in plastic bags for 2 weeks.
  • Vacuum mattress, carpet, upholstered furniture, and car upholstery.
  • Soak combs and brushes for one hour in a solution of one quart of water and one and one-half tablespoons of Lysol, or soak for 5 to 10 minutes in hot water (150 deg. F). Boiling is not necessary.
  • Discourage children from sharing combs, brushes, caps, scarves and other personal items.

It has been recognized that some lice are becoming resistant to the over-the-counter lice products. Another possible treatment is with olive oil. It is still recommended that the pediculicide (lice products) be used, but in addition use olive oil. Olive oil smothers and kills active (live) lice. The hair is to be saturated with the olive oil, then have a shower cap on for 8 hours. This needs to be done every 4 days for 3 weeks. This is smothering the hatching lice from nits that may have been missed. This schedule coincides with the lice life cycle. Clean the environment as recommended above. Leave the olive oil in the hair while using a good metal nit comb to remove dead lice and nits. Wash the hair as normal. Check dry hair in bright light for any nits that may have been missed.