Lice! Now what?

Jul 31, 2014 at 11:00 a.m. ET
Image: Diana Kraleva/Moment/Getty Images

It's a mom's worst nightmare: lice. Whether your darling child has an infestation or you received a warning call from the school nurse, here's what you can do to stop these nasty critters in their tracks.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are six to 12 million cases of head lice infestations in the U.S. each year, which makes it the second most common child health complaint after the common cold. We caught up with Anna Warren, head lice removal specialist and owner of the Asheville Lice Treatment Center, to hear what parents should do to treat and prevent this nasty child health problem.

Ideas for prevention

Warren states that it's important for parents to remain vigilant in prevention during the summer, since summer and back-to-school months are the hottest months for infestations. Also, remain vigilant if you have a little girl with long hair, since hair length puts kids at risk for infestation.

Here are Warren's other recommendations, especially as you ramp up for summer camp and sleepovers, where kids are frequently exposed to lice.

  1. Complete a weekly comb-through. Run a good lice comb through your child's hair once weekly to remove any nits before they have a chance to hatch.
  2. Use preventative shampoos. Although Warren didn't recommend any particular brands, she stated that herbal shampoos and sprays, touting rosemary and other ingredients, can prevent lice from taking over.
  3. Pull hair back. Put your child's hair in a ponytail if it's long. "Pulling long hair back will close the bridge from one head to another," said Warren.
  4. Use oil-based products. African-American children have a lower rate of head lice infestation, partly due to the curl of their hair and the use of oil-based products. Try using coconut oil or olive oil in a conditioning treatment this summer.

Pinpointing an infestation

If you've ever dealt with a lice infestation, you likely know the signs all too well. The itching. The quick-moving adult louse. The grayish-white nit on your child's hair shaft. But for newbie parents, the telltale signs of a lice infestation may be easily missed. "It's important for parents to know what they're looking for," says Warren, so they can properly treat the infestation before it takes over.

According to Warren, an adult head louse is about the size of a sesame seed, and it can move very quickly across the scalp and hair shaft. A newly hatched bug, called a "nymph," is smaller than a poppy seed and lives directly on the scalp. Unfortunately, tiny nits are harder to see and even harder to remove. You can find these whitish-gray, tadpole-shaped eggs attached to a strand of hair. You must remove these nits if you hope to stop an infestation.

How to treat an infestation

Sadly, prevention can't stop all head lice infestations. And while it might sound a little silly, a head lice infestation can turn into an absolute family crisis. It's a nightmare to spend hours nit picking, washing sheets and boiling combs, only to see a tiny louse skitter across your child's scalp unabated.

"Many families reach a point of complete loss of hope," says Warren. "The major problem in current treatment is an inability to effectively remove lice. Commonly-used treatments — like RID and NIX — have lost effectiveness due to increased resistance of the louse to a variety of treatments." In other words, you can certainly try a standard over-the-counter remedy, but you'll have a significant chance of having viable nits and bugs following use of the products. The same is true, unfortunately, for prescription options.

So, what's a hopeless parent to do? In her clinic, Warren uses a pesticide-free product called Vamousse to kill the nits and bugs. She then follows the product with an intensive combing, in which she ensures each nit is removed from the hair shaft. "I also recommend that every household member over 2 years of age use the product to prevent an infestation," she adds. Finally, she instructs families to wash all linens and boil or trash all combs, brushes and hair products.

Tip: Prevent future lice infestations by telling friends about your ordeal. Seriously! Your child got lice from a friend, and most likely gave it to someone else. There's no need to feel embarrassed when you're doing your friends a favor by allowing them to do their own prevention.

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