Recognizing the Itch
Though it’s unpleasant to think about, it’s important to learn to recognize the symptoms of lice. Lice are tiny insects called parasites that are spread by personal contact, as well as by sharing belongings. Children are particularly likely to develop and spread lice.
Click through the slideshow to find out how to identify signs and symptoms that indicate you or your child may have lice.
Types of Lice
There are three main types of lice that all have similar symptoms, though they occur on different parts of the body:
- head lice: found on the scalp, neck, and ears
- body lice: start out on clothing or in beds, but move from those locations to people’s skin
- pubic lice: also called “crabs,” found on pubic hair and skin
The most common symptom of lice is itching. Lice bites cause an allergic reaction that cause this itchy feeling. However, you may not feel itchy right away, especially if it’s a light infestation. You may initially notice no symptoms for up to six weeks the first time you get lice.
In addition to intense itching, lice can cause other symptoms, such as:
- a tickling feeling of something moving on the head, hair, or body
- sores that develop from scratching the itchiness caused by lice
- irritability and difficulty sleeping
- red bumps on the head, neck, shoulders, or pubic area
the appearance of small white objects in the hair—these are lice eggs (also called “nits”), which appear on hair shafts and are difficult to brush out of the hair
Looking for Signs
While head lice can cause an itchy scalp, so can other skin conditions, such as dandruff, eczema, or even allergies to shampoo and other hair products. Therefore, it’s important to know how to check for lice, especially on children.
Part the hair to look at the scalp in a brightly lit room. You can use a fine-toothed comb to help remove the lice.
Head lice are quite contagious, so it’s important to take some precautions to avoid catching them. Don’t share personal belongings such as hairbrushes, hairclips, combs, and hats. Launder clothes and sheets regularly.
If you think you may have a lice infestation at home, vacuum the floor and furniture, and then cover furniture for two weeks with a plastic drop cloth.
Prevention Is the Best Cure
Though it’s difficult to prevent children’s spread of lice in school or childcare settings, you can ask your child to avoid head-to-head contact with other kids during playtime. Avoiding shared spaces for clothing and hats—such as closets and lockers—may also help prevent the spread of lice.
However, even with good hygiene practices, your child may develop lice. If so, the best way to treat symptoms is through medications that your doctor can prescribe or recommend for treating lice.
Treating Head lice
You can treat lice with some over-the-counter products, as well as prescription medications. You can purchase non-prescription shampoos that contain ingredients that treat lice, such as pyrethrin or permethrin.
Prescription medications (which you should use as directed) that your doctor may recommend include:
- malathion, which you rub into your hair and scalp before rinsing off
- benzyl alcohol lotion, a lotion that you apply to your hair and scalp for 10 minutes before rinsing off
- lindane, which is formulated as a prescription shampoo
Checking It Out
If you’re uncertain whether you or a family member has lice, see your doctor. A physician can use a special light (called a Wood’s light) to make the nits more visible.
It’s often possible to use home treatments to get rid of lice and avoid further symptoms. Wash contaminated clothing, sheets, and towels, and use over-the-counter treatments as needed. There’s no need to suffer longer than you have to with itching and other symptoms from lice.