Up to 12 Million Children Get Lice Every Year—Is Your Child at Risk?

These pesky insects latch onto the scalp and cause major itching.

Up to 12 Million Children Get Lice Every Year—Is Your Child at Risk?

The kids are back to school—and back to germs and contagious conditions. Head lice are most common in school-aged children. In fact, up to 12 million children ages 3 to 11 will likely contract lice each year, estimates The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lice are not only common, but also difficult to get rid of, and it’s becoming even more difficult. A review published in the Pediatric Dermatology journal found that common over-the-counter (OTC) lice treatments containing pyrethroids, insecticides used to control pests, may not be as effective as they once were. Why? They've been used to kill lice for over 30 years, and the insects may have started to resist them. The study also noted that lindane, an OTC shampoo used to treat scabies and lice, may be toxic. Researchers say the findings should encourage people with head lice to get treated by their healthcare provider first, rather than heading to the local drugstore for an OTC bottle of lice shampoo or cream.

The good news? Lice don’t spread any sort of disease. Here's everything you need to know about these pesky creatures, including what they are, how they spread and what you can do if your child brings them home.

What are lice?
The head louse, otherwise known as Pediculus humanus capitis, is a small parasitic insect that latches onto the head, eyebrows and eyelashes. Lice cannot fly or jump, but they do crawl. The insects feed on human blood a few times a day and typically stay close to the scalp. Kids aren’t the only ones that may be infected; adults can contract head lice, too.

You or your child may see them in three forms: lice eggs or nits, baby lice or nymphs, and adult lice. It’s most common to see lice eggs—tiny yellow, tan or brown speckles that look more like dandruff. And after the eggs hatch, their white or clear shell may be easier to spot. Nymphs turn into adult lice one or two weeks after hatching.

Head-to-head contact causes them to latch on
While adults can catch head lice, preschool- and elementary-aged children in daycare or school are more likely to get them. Young children are more at risk because they’re in constant contact with other kids— lunchtime recess, slumber parties and overnight camps are all hot spots for contracting lice.

It's also possible for someone to contract head lice from sharing clothing or other belongings like hats and brushes, but it’s not nearly as common.

4 symptoms to watch out for
If the bugs have made their way to your head or your child’s head, symptoms will most likely include:

  • Itchy scalp
  • Tickling or a feeling that something is crawling on the scalp
  • Head sores from scratching
  • Irritability and trouble sleeping since head lice are more active in the dark

Effective medical treatments are available
If you or someone in your family has lice, your doctor will prescribe a medicated shampoo, cream rinse or lotion that will kill the insects; you may itch for a few days after starting the medication. If topical treatments aren’t working, an oral medication may be recommended.

For children aged 2 months and under, the insects will need to be removed by hand. Home remedies like petroleum jelly, mayonnaise and essential oils shouldn’t be used to treat head lice; they’re not effective, can irritate the skin and may make symptoms worse. Wet-combing, or repeated hair combing using a rinse, olive oil or vinegar may be an effective treatment option for younger children, but you’ll have to do it every three to four days for up to two weeks. It’s always best to talk to your child’s pediatrician about the treatment option right for you.

In the past, children were kept home from school if they had lice. Doctors now recommend they go to school like usual, and return home afterwards for treatment. However, each school has a slightly different policy, so it’s important to check with the school nurse. And remember, you and your child should steer clear of head-to-head contact with others.

4 ways to prevent infestation
Head lice don’t live very long if they fall off of someone and cannot feed. But, if a family member gets lice, it’s still important you disinfect your home to prevent the bugs from spreading. Here’s what to do:

  • Wash all of their clothing and bed linens in hot water, then dry the items using the hottest setting.
  • Take stuffed animals and any other items that can’t be washed to the dry cleaner, or store in airtight bags for two weeks.
  • Vacuum all carpets in your home and cars, and any upholstered furniture. Be sure to throw away the vacuum cleaner bag afterwards.
  • Soak items like combs, hair ties and brushes in hot water (at least 130°F) for 5 to 10 minutes.

3 tips to keep lice from spreading
Head lice doesn’t mean you or your child have poor hygiene, but you can adopt some healthy habits to prevent them from latching on in the first place:

  • Avoid sharing belongings like hats, scarves, coats, school uniforms, hair bows, barrettes, combs, brushes, towels and stuffed animals. Wash your own items regularly.
  • Avoid lying down on upholstered furniture like beds, couches or carpets if someone with lice has used them.  
  • Check your family every three to four days, especially if they’ve come into contact with someone who has lice. 

Don’t worry if someone in your family contracts lice—it may be unpleasant, but there are many fast-acting treatment options. Just be sure to see your doctor as soon as you're aware of the insects.

Medically reviewed in October 2018.

More On

News: Are Smartphones Making Teens More Depressed Than Ever Before?


News: Are Smartphones Making Teens More Depressed Than Ever Before?
Too many hours texting, sharing memes, scrolling through social media feeds and watching cat or dog videos on smartphones may be hazardous to your tee...
What Really Works to Protect Your Newborn From SIDS


What Really Works to Protect Your Newborn From SIDS
The exact cause of SIDS is unknown, but you can still take steps to reduce the risk.
6 Fast, Healthy Recipes for Frazzled Parents


6 Fast, Healthy Recipes for Frazzled Parents
"Knowing kids -- and parents -- need to eat healthy food is one thing. Getting them to do it is another. For starters, kids of all ages tend to hate a...
Teens' All-Night Texting


Teens' All-Night Texting
The use of smartphones for communication is near ubiquitous in teenagers. It’s bad enough that they’re texting, tweeting, updating their Facebook page...
Spank, Slap or Hit Your Kids? Your Parenting Style Could Cause Them Problems Later On


Spank, Slap or Hit Your Kids? Your Parenting Style Could Cause Them Problems Later On
Physical punishment—punishment that involves spanking, slapping, hitting or pulling, also known as corporal punishment—is one way parents discipline t...