Head Lice FAQ and Answers from The Nit-Picker
Parents faced with a head lice infestation often panic. They reach out for advice and information from doctors, pharmacists, lice treatment packaging, and the Internet—only to find that the information from one source contradicts the next. Fortunately, The Nit-Picker Inc. was founded to help families through this crisis—with calm assurance and a firm grip on the facts about lice and nits. Read on for responses to frequently asked questions—and discover some common misconceptions about head lice—from The Nit-Picker founder Helen Hadley.
We followed the doctor’s advice but we still have lice. I need to know when we’ll be done with this. When can I stop doing the laundry and the combing? Another week? A month? How much longer? —Alison
I’m often asked how to assess the end date of an infestation of head lice. In Alison’s case, I was able to help through a paid phone consultation session. I recommended that she record the number of bugs and nits she removed each day to track her progress. When she got down to “0 bugs” and “0 nits,” I told her to continue checking each day for three more weeks. She had to keep checking, because if she missed just two viable eggs of opposite sexes, they would hatch and begin laying the eggs of a new generation at a rate of 3-10 per day. However, if Alison continued checking and combing each day for a full three weeks, she would find and remove any new eggs long before they were ready to hatch.
I hired a very expensive cleaning service to deep clean the furniture and mattresses. The drapes have all been sent to a dry cleaner in town. What else do I need to do? —Erica
The idea that a lice infestation has contaminated everything in the home is one of the most common misconceptions I hear. I told Erica that she needed to redirect her thinking away from the furniture and floors and concentrate her efforts on the heads of everyone who lived in her home. The human scalp and the hair on it is the only place that head lice live. Everywhere else, they will die of starvation within 24–36 hours. Lice are not capable of running around the house or of burrowing into a mattress or a piece of furniture. They are not laying eggs in carpets, on pets, or anywhere else in the home. If they are not on a human head they are dying.
My kids have lice but thank goodness I don’t. Since my hair is dyed, I can’t get it, right? —Janine
Unfortunately, hair dye does not kill lice. If it did, I am sure it would have been socially acceptable to dye a child’s hair a long time ago. In 2004, I treated a woman who had applied red dye to her hair the night before my appointment with her. I removed more than 200 nits and 10 live bugs that were deep crimson—they had either ingested the dye or they were coated with it, but they were definitely still alive.
There are lots of cases of lice at my daughter’s school—I can just picture those bugs jumping from head to head. I am not letting my kids go back to school again until they have scrubbed every classroom thoroughly. —Lauren
I calmed Lauren’s fears about her children’s school by letting her know that if lice are in a school building it’s because the children in it brought them there. For the most part, when the children leave the school, the lice also leave. Only rarely does a louse drop from a child’s head to a place where it could be transferred to another child’s head. Lice do not take up residence in school buildings—not on the floors, carpet, books, desks, cafeteria, or playground. What’s more, lice are not capable of flying or jumping.
Occasionally, school administrators have asked that I recommend ways that they can better manage an infestation of lice in their school. My No. 1 recommendation: Get rid of all pillow-laden reading areas in classrooms. As wonderful as these areas are for independent reading, they pose a risk to others if a child in the classroom has head lice. Other places in a school that parents worry are sources of cross-contamination pose much less risk—hats and coats stored in tight spaces, shared athletic equipment, and head sets. Primarily lice are transmitted to others through direct head-to-head contact.
I figure that if I leave the lice alone they’ll die off. —Georgia
This is a dangerous misconception. The Nit-Picker team has treated individuals with thousands of nits and hundreds of lice in their hair, although such extreme cases are not common. However, the number of extreme infestations has risen significantly over the past five years and more people do not itch at all, or the itching is significantly delayed (sometimes for months). Why this is happening is unclear. What is clear, however, is that the lice do not die off if left alone.
I know I have head lice because I saw a bug crawl across the bathroom floor and my head has been itching ever since. —Margot
Every day people tell us that their head itches when they think about head lice. An itchy scalp, however, is not often an indication of lice. Unconsciously, we scratch our heads many times a day—a normal occurrence that is unrelated to head lice. The itching caused by the bite of a head louse is far more intense than the itching we experience every day.
The more obvious misunderstanding about lice in Margot’s statement is the suggestion that a louse found its way into her bathroom, walked across the floor and somehow managed to get from the floor to her head. Lice do not come from bathroom floors. Lice do not come from the back yard, the fruit bowl, or Fido. Lice do not climb up a person’s leg, a bathroom vanity, or a shower curtain, and lice do not jump or fly. The only place that a louse moves around easily, and the only place it can feed and breed is on a human head.
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