What to Do About the Head Lice Plague
They Bite 10 to 12 Million
“As young people return to school one very common problem many will encounter is head lice,” says Leonard Douglen, the Executive Director of the New Jersey Pest Management Association. “Head lice are known to infest between ten to fifteen million people nationwide every year.”
“While head lice are not a pest control problem,” says Douglen, “they are a health problem that involves a creature that passes easily between school children and which requires the attention of parents to eradicate because they depend on a blood meal to live and reproduce.”
Children transmit lice to one another most commonly during the early fall from August to November, when they return to school. As a result, infestations are often most noticeable by December and January as their populations rapidly grow.
“Female lice can lay six or seven eggs (nits) a day,” says Douglen, “as many as fifty to a hundred in their short lifetime. Adults cannot survive, however, without a blood meal.”
The most common way children pass them along occurs when they share combs, hats, and other personal belongings. “If a child complains of an itchy head, that’s usually a sure sign that they have been exposed to lice that are biting,” said Douglen.
“Lice can be seen with a careful inspection of a child’s head,” says Douglen, “and the eggs look like tiny yellow, tan or brown dots before they hatch. When they do hatch, their shell looks white or clear. Lice lay nits on hair shafts close to the skin’s surface where the temperature is perfect for keeping them warm until they hatch.”
They resemble dandruff. He recommends using a magnifying glass and a light for better visibility.
Lifespan and Damage
Lice become adults within one to two weeks and are about the size of a sesame seed and are grayish-white or tan. “They will take a blood meal several times a day,” says Douglen, “and can live up to two days off the scalp.” The most noticeable response to an infestation is itching and scratching although some children with less sensitive skin will take several weeks before they begin to scratch the irritation.
Beyond warning children against sharing combs, hats and other items, daily washing and changing of clothes will help prevent the problem. “When children return to school, a daily inspection is recommended,” says Douglen. “And as soon as an infestation is detected, wash all clothes and bedding in hot soapy water, then put them in the dryer on high heat to kill the lice and eggs.”
There are over-the-counter creams, lotions, and shampoos that contain permethrin or pyrethrins (an extract) as active ingredients to kill the adults and nits. Douglen recommends shampoos as an effective way to eliminate the problem, but adds that parents should purchase a special fine-toothed comb to aid the removal process. He reminds parents to soak combs in a lice-killing solution such as rubbing alcohol after each use.
For children of pre-school age who may get lice from an older sibling, lice and nits should be removed by hand. Do not use a medication.
“There is no need to treat furniture and toys with lice sprays because lice cannot live off a host longer than a few days,” says Douglen, “and for this reason it is not a pest control problem as in the case of bed bugs.”
Lice are highly contagious and can spread quickly from person to person in group settings such as schools, childcare centers, slumber parties, sports activities, and camps.
The New Jersey Pest Management Association was founded in 1941 and shares joint membership with the National Pest Management Association. It maintains a website at www.njpma.com that provides information on a variety of common insect and rodent pests, as well as member firms located throughout the State.