Facts About Head Lice
can keep these bloodsuckers in check
By Dennis Thompson Jr.
FRIDAY, Sept. 26 (HealthDayNews) -- Revulsion and
These are the typical first reactions of parents
whose children come home from school with head lice.
But experts say parents shouldn't let panic upend
their home needlessly as they race about trying to rid
their kids -- and possibly themselves -- of the sesame
"People tend to just freak with this," says Steve
Pray, a professor at the School of Pharmacy at
Southwestern Oklahoma State University. "One of the
first things you have to do in a counseling session is
calm them down. A minimalist approach is going to be
Another thing you should realize about head lice is
you're not alone. That's a message health experts hope
to convey during September, National Head Lice
As many as 6 million to 12 million people worldwide
get head lice every year, according to the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention. And cleanliness has
nothing to do with who will be the targets of the
Preschool and elementary-age children, aged 3 to 10,
and their families are infested most often. Children
tend to pass lice along at school when they share hats
or play closely with other kids.
Whites get head lice more often than other racial
groups. And girls and women tend to get them more often
than boys or men because their hair is longer, says Dr.
Mervyn Elgart, emeritus professor of dermatology at
George Washington University.
"Having short hair is a blessing," Elgart says. "Lice
like to be warm, and if you've got longer hair it's
warmer under there."
So how do you rid your child or yourself of these
The first decision is whether to use a chemical
Some experts warn against it, saying the shampoos
contain harmful ingredients. "It's a pesticide, and
there are safer alternatives," says Deborah Altschuler,
president of the National Pediculosis Association. "It
makes no sense to shampoo a child with a pesticide."
Altschuler and Pray also warn that the lice shampoos
currently on the market are becoming less effective. "We
have a great deal of resistance that's emerging, the
same sort of resistance we're seeing in antibiotics,"
Pray says. "I'm having people come in and say they've
used the products perfectly and they just aren't
But Elgart believes some shampoo treatments can be
safe and effective. "We use chemicals to color hair. We
use chemicals to curl or straighten hair. I think the
appropriate use of chemicals isn't so bad," he says.
Elgart recommends products that contain the pesticide
permethrin. Over-the-counter treatments contain 1
percent permethrin, but Elgart says people with more
stubborn cases can get a 5 percent permethrin solution
with a prescription.
Altschuler and Pray suggest people remove the lice
and their eggs (called nits) using special, fine-toothed
lice-removal combs, which pull the insects from the
scalp. The National Pediculosis Association sells a comb
kit called the LiceMeister for treating your family.
Both say people should definitely stay clear of
chemical treatments if the affected children are on
medication or are receiving therapies for AIDS, cancer,
epilepsy, asthma, allergies or any other chronic
Once parents have combed their children's hair for
lice and nits, they should comb their own hair in the
shower, Altschuler says, but not before boiling or
washing the comb between uses.
One problem with combing is that the nits stick to
the hair follicle using a very strong glue. Elgart
recommends soaking the comb in vinegar before using it
to help dissolve the glue.
Pray warns people against home remedies. He's heard
of people using gasoline or kerosene on their children,
or pesticides straight from their garden store. Other
home remedies he's heard of involve coating the head in
Vaseline, olive oil or salt water.
"They're embarrassed, so they won't come to
pharmacists and get the straight information," he says.
"It's just incredible what people do."
"The embarrassing thing is not that you've got it.
It's not treating it and having your child go to school
and infest others," Pray adds.
If lice strike your family, don't worry about having
your pets treated. Nor should you coat your house with
pesticides. Head lice feed specifically on human blood,
not animal blood, and don't stray far from their food
"They're not going to strike out on expeditions to
find new heads," Pray says. "Away from a person they're
going to die within 24 hours, because they must have
But you should vacuum your home thoroughly and wash
your clothes and linens in hot water. "These things
[lice] are very temperature-sensitive," Pray says.
To learn more about head lice and how to protect your
family, visit the
National Pediculosis Association or the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.