Itchy head? Lose the lice

March 18, 2019
A mother brushes her daughter's hair in this image.
Lice are transmitted through touching heads or coming in contact with infected hair follicles. Photo by Getty Images.

If the word ‘lice’ makes you itchy, you’re not alone. There’s not much that’s pleasant about the clingy, egg-laying bugs – except that you can get rid of them.

Below, Lauren Bryan, an infection preventionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, shares all you need to know about head lice.

What are head lice?

Head lice are small parasites that feed on human blood and reside on the scalp.

“They’re pretty ugly, with two front hands or claws that hold onto the hair follicle,” Bryan said.

Each day, they lay six to eight eggs, or nits, on hair follicles about a quarter inch from the scalp. Eggs can appear darker in dark hair and lighter in light hair, and hatch in about a week.

Who do lice affect?

Lice are transmitted through touching heads or coming in contact with infected hair follicles.

“They don’t jump or fly,” Bryan said. “Direct contact is really what does it.”

They’re most commonly passed among children. “Kids are more likely to share things, such as hairbrushes and hats,” Bryan said. “And they have more head-to-head contact with slumber parties and every day activities.”

But no one is immune.

“They can affect anyone, including parents,” Bryan said.

When do lice strike?

Head lice aren’t picky when it comes to a season: they can strike any time of year. But outbreaks are more likely when groups of children get together.

“When kids are going back to school or are at a summer camp, you tend to see more outbreaks,” Bryan said.

Can you prevent lice?

The first and only rule in lice prevention is to stop sharing.

“Don’t share your hairbrushes and your combs,” Bryan said. “Don’t share pillowcases with kids at slumber parties. Don’t share your hats.”

How do you treat lice?

If you find your child scratching his or her head, examine their scalp for moving bugs the size of sesame seeds.

“A lot of times, people will think it’s dandruff or particles of hair products, but these guys move,” Bryan said. “Some of the best places to look are behind the ears and along the neckline and hairline.”

If you find lice on one person in the family, check everyone. Then treat only the affected family members with an over-the-counter, anti-parasitic shampoo or rinse. Use a fine-toothed comb to comb out the eggs, wait a week and treat again.

“You’re not going to get all of the eggs and then they’re going to hatch,” Bryan said. “So you have to treat again in about a week. It’s a two-step process.”

Check within 12 hours of the first treatment to make sure the adult lice are dead or dying: if they are not, you’re likely dealing with drug-resistant head lice, which require a stronger, prescription-only treatment. A visit with your health care provider is also necessary if scabs that can result from scratching get infected.

While there are homeopathic treatments out there, Bryan said there’s no evidence those actually work.

Meanwhile, make sure all lice and eggs are removed from items that may have hair follicles – bed linens, pillows, hair brushes, couch cushions – by washing them in 130-degree water for at least five minutes. Vacuum and sweep to remove hair follicles from the floor.

Items that can’t be washed can be stored in a closed plastic bag for two weeks to kill adults and eggs.

One positive about head lice: unlike ticks and mosquitoes, they don’t transmit disease. And getting lice doesn’t mean your housekeeping skills need a brush up.

“Getting head lice is not a sign of hygiene or cleanliness of the home or any of those sorts of things,” Bryan said. “It can happen to anybody.”


This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Sept. 17, 2018.

About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at