Head lice are tiny parasitic insects that like to live among human hairs. If you are a parent of school aged children, you may know that head lice are epidemic in schools today. If you or your children have experienced being in infested with them, you may take comfort in knowing that you are not alone. Every year, 6 to 10 million people in the US have head lice. Three quarters of those are school children under the age of 12. As you can see, this is a very common problem. While very annoying, they are not dangerous. They don’t spread disease, and contrary to popular belief, they seem to like clean hair as opposed to dirty hair. Head lice cannot live on animals. If your animals have lice, they will not infect you. – (Those are different lice.)
What do they look like? Adult lice are usually reddish brown in color with no wings and are about the size of a sesame seed. Females lay from 50 to 150 eggs that appear as shiny white, yellow, tan or brown dots. Empty eggshells are called nits. (Sometimes the word nit is used for both the egg and the empty shell.) Eggs are about half the size of a pinhead. Individual eggs are glued to hairs close to the scalp and hatch after 5 to 10 days.
What are the symptoms? The first indication of an infestation is itching or scratching, then, there may be small red bumps. Sometimes children will develop some swelling of their lymph glands.
To check for lice, use a bright light and look closely for adult lice and for eggs. Look from different angles since newly laid eggs are almost transparent. Adult lice will move quickly to avoid the light. Eggs and nits will be seen on the hair shaft. They can be distinguished from dandruff because they stick to the hair and are not easily removed.
Are lice contagious? Lice are highly contagious. They spread from person to person in group settings, such as schools, playgrounds, and slumber parties. They don’t fly or jump but they do crawl and they cling to hair shafts. They spread when children, or adults, get their heads together. They also spread from sharing combs, brushes, hats, clothes, even bed linens.
Lynne Chapman served as Hair Site Editor of BellaOnline.com for fifteen years. She is a professional stylist and colorist of more than forty years.