Kids can say the darnedest things. They can be cute and funny and sometimes… they get head lice.
That’s not the cute and funny part of working with kids, but it does come with the territory for schools and gymnastics gyms and clubs alike.
The best thing to do is confront the problem head on (oh yeah, we said that!) and get ‘er done!
First, let’s orient ourselves to what’s real courtesy of our friends at the Centers for Disease Control located here in our home state of Georgia.
What are head lice?
The head louse, or Pediculus humanus capitis, is a parasitic insect that can be found on the head, eyebrows, and eyelashes of people. Head lice feed on human blood several times a day and live close to the human scalp. Head lice are not known to spread disease.
Who is at risk for getting head lice?
Head lice are found worldwide. In the United States, infestation with head lice is most common among pre-school children attending child care, elementary schoolchildren, and the household members of infested children. Although reliable data on how many people in the United States get head lice each year are not available, an estimated 6 million to 12 million infestations occur each year in the United States among children 3 to 11 years of age.
Head lice move by crawling; they cannot hop or fly. Head lice are spread by direct contact with the hair of an infested person. Anyone who comes in head-to-head contact with someone who already has head lice is at greatest risk. Spread by contact with clothing (such as hats, scarves, coats) or other personal items (such as combs, brushes, or towels) used by an infested person is uncommon. Personal hygiene or cleanliness in the home or school has nothing to do with getting head lice.
OK. That’s one myth debunked!
What do head lice look like?
Ew! Google that, please! We’ll wait. We don’t want to see them every time we look at this blog. While you switch back and forth between icky pictures… we’ll keep on with the info you need to know how to recognize their 3 stages, how to deal with them on a child and how to deal with them in your gym — per the CDC and the generous gymnastics professionals we surveyed for this post!
Head lice have three forms: the egg (also called a nit), the nymph, and the adult.
Egg/Nit: Nits are lice eggs laid by the adult female head louse at the base of the hair shaft nearest the scalp. Nits are firmly attached to the hair shaft and are oval-shaped and very small (about the size of a knot in thread) and hard to see. Nits often appear yellow or white although live nits sometimes appear to be the same color as the hair of the infested person. Nits are often confused with dandruff, scabs, or hair spray droplets. Head lice nits usually take about 8–9 days to hatch. Eggs that are likely to hatch are usually located no more than ¼ inch from the base of the hair shaft. Nits located further than ¼ inch from the base of hair shaft may very well be already hatched, non-viable nits, or empty nits or casings. This is difficult to distinguish with the naked eye.
Nymph: A nymph is an immature louse that hatches from the nit. A nymph looks like an adult head louse, but is smaller. To live, a nymph must feed on blood. Nymphs mature into adults about 9–12 days after hatching from the nit.
Adult: The fully grown and developed adult louse is about the size of a sesame seed, has six legs, and is tan to grayish-white in color. Adult head lice may look darker in persons with dark hair than in persons with light hair. To survive, adult head lice must feed on blood. An adult head louse can live about 30 days on a person’s head but will die within one or two days if it falls off a person. Adult female head lice are usually larger than males and can lay about six eggs each day.
Where are head lice most commonly found?
Head lice and head lice nits are found almost exclusively on the scalp, particularly around and behind the ears and near the neckline at the back of the head. Head lice or head lice nits sometimes are found on the eyelashes or eyebrows but this is uncommon. Head lice hold tightly to hair with hook-like claws at the end of each of their six legs. Head lice nits are cemented firmly to the hair shaft and can be difficult to remove even after the nymphs hatch and empty casings remain.
What are the signs and symptoms of head lice infestation?
• Tickling feeling of something moving in the hair.
• Itching, caused by an allergic reaction to the bites of the head louse.
• Irritability and difficulty sleeping; head lice are most active in the dark.
• Sores on the head caused by scratching. These sores can sometimes become infected with bacteria found on the person’s skin.
How is head lice infestation diagnosed?
The diagnosis of a head lice infestation is best made by finding a live nymph or adult louse on the scalp or hair of a person. Because nymphs and adult lice are very small, move quickly, and avoid light, they can be difficult to find. Use of a magnifying lens and a fine-toothed comb may be helpful to find live lice. If crawling lice are not seen, finding nits firmly attached within a ¼ inch of base of the hair shafts strongly suggests, but does not confirm, that a person is infested and should be treated. Nits that are attached more than ¼ inch from the base of the hair shaft are almost always dead or already hatched. Nits are often confused with other things found in the hair such as dandruff, hair spray droplets, and dirt particles. If no live nymphs or adult lice are seen, and the only nits found are more than ¼-inch from the scalp, the infestation is probably old and no longer active and does not need to be treated.
If you are not sure if a person has head lice, the diagnosis should be made by their health care provider, local health department, or other person trained to identify live head lice like a school nurse.
Protocols from Gymnastics Gyms and Clubs:
We asked the community in several gymnastics coaches and gym club owners groups and here’s what we heard from you:
“The Nasty Topic: Lice & Nits
Head lice can be a nuisance and we are aware that they have not been shown to spread disease. Personal hygiene or cleanliness in the home or school has nothing to do with contracting head lice. Facts have proven otherwise. Head lice actually prefer clean hair to not so clean hair. But because participation in gymnastics requires children to use a large shared space, that includes rolling on carpets, foam mats, leather and other hard to treat surfaces, we take a conservative approach.
Our policy is as follows-Children found or diagnosed to have lice or nits must have two treatments, seven days apart before they will be permitted to return to gym or karate. In the event that your child experiences an absence due to the need to treat we will adjust tuition accordingly.”
“We send an email home letting all parents know. We clean the gym thoroughly according to CDC guidelines (though we do this on a consistent basis anyway). Infected kids are asked to stay home until they are lice free.”
As we suspected, the community is on top of things and right in line with the CDC guidelines for treating lice and nits. There was one gym that took a more organic, less chemical, alternative approach. Here are their tactics:
“Lice are actually pretty easy to treat. I don’t use chemicals. Use Paul Mitchell’s tea tree shampoo or put a drop of lavender and tea tree oil in their shampoo or conditioner. Then use a straightener for a few days, then again at 7 days and pull out nits. The heat will destroy the eggs and live bugs. The oils are pretty aromatic and can irritate skin so use sparingly. We use this once a week in our conditioner as a preventative because lice don’t like the smell. All bedding has to be washed in hot water, pillows can be put in a dryer cycle using heat to kill and vacuum bedding and furniture.
At the gym, just vacuum when you’ve had a case. They don’t live in the carpets long without a host.”
More from the CDC:
Treating the Environment:
For example, hats, scarves, pillow cases, bedding, clothing, and towels worn or used by the infested person in the 2-day period just before treatment is started can be machine washed and dried using the hot water and hot air cycles because lice and eggs are killed by exposure for 5 minutes to temperatures greater than 53.5°C (128.3°F).
Items that cannot be laundered may be dry-cleaned or sealed in a plastic bag for two weeks. Items such as hats, grooming aids, and towels that come in contact with the hair of an infested person should not be shared!
Vacuuming furniture and floors can remove an infested person’s hairs that might have viable nits attached.
Treat the infested person(s):
Requires using an Over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medication. Follow these treatment steps:
1. Before applying treatment, it may be helpful to remove clothing that can become wet or stained during treatment.
2. Apply lice medicine, also called pediculicide, according to the instructions contained in the box or printed on the label. If the infested person has very long hair (longer than shoulder length), it may be necessary to use a second bottle. Pay special attention to instructions on the label or in the box regarding how long the medication should be left on the hair and how it should be washed out.
• Have the infested person put on clean clothing after treatment.
• If a few live lice are still found 8–12 hours after treatment, but are moving more slowly than before, do not retreat. The medicine may take longer to kill all the lice. Comb dead and any remaining live lice out of the hair using a fine–toothed nit comb.
• If, after 8–12 hours of treatment, no dead lice are found and lice seem as active as before, the medicine may not be working. Do not retreat until speaking with your health care provider; a different pediculicide may be necessary. If your health care provider recommends a different pediculicide, carefully follow the treatment instructions contained in the box or printed on the label.
• Nit (head lice egg) combs, often found in lice medicine packages, should be used to comb nits and lice from the hair shaft. Many flea combs made for cats and dogs are also effective.
• After each treatment, checking the hair and combing with a nit comb to remove nits and lice every 2–3 days may decrease the chance of self–reinfestation. Continue to check for 2–3 weeks to be sure all lice and nits are gone. Nit removal is not needed when treating with spinosad topical suspension.
• Retreatment is meant to kill any surviving hatched lice before they produce new eggs. For some drugs, retreatment is recommended routinely about a week after the first treatment (7–9 days, depending on the drug) and for others only if crawling lice are seen during this period. Retreatment with lindane shampoo is not recommended.
Head lice do not survive long if they fall off a person and cannot feed. You don’t need to spend a lot of time or money on housecleaning activities. Follow these steps to help avoid re–infestation by lice that have recently fallen off the hair or crawled onto clothing or furniture.
1. Machine wash and dry clothing, bed linens, and other items that the infested person wore or used during the 2 days before treatment using the hot water (130°F) laundry cycle and the high heat drying cycle. Clothing and items that are not washable can be dry–cleaned
sealed in a plastic bag and stored for 2 weeks.
2. Soak combs and brushes in hot water (at least 130°F) for 5–10 minutes.
3. Vacuum the floor and furniture, particularly where the infested person sat or lay. However, the risk of getting infested by a louse that has fallen onto a rug or carpet or furniture is very small. Head lice survive less than 1–2 days if they fall off a person and cannot feed; nits cannot hatch and usually die within a week if they are not kept at the same temperature as that found close to the human scalp. Spending much time and money on housecleaning activities is not necessary to avoid reinfestation by lice or nits that may have fallen off the head or crawled onto furniture or clothing.
4. Do not use fumigant sprays; they can be toxic if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
Many head lice medications are available “Over-the-counter” without a prescription at a local drug store or pharmacy. Each Over-the-counter product approved by the FDA for the treatment of head lice contains one of the following active ingredients. If crawling lice are still seen after a full course of treatment contact your health care provider.
1. Pyrethrins combined with piperonyl butoxide;
Brand name products: A–200*, Pronto*, R&C*, Rid*, Triple X*.
Pyrethrins are naturally occurring pyrethroid extracts from the chrysanthemum flower. Pyrethrins are safe and effective when used as directed. Pyrethrins can only kill live lice, not unhatched eggs (nits). A second treatment is recommended 9 to 10 days after the first treatment to kill any newly hatched lice before they can produce new eggs. Pyrethrins generally should not be used by persons who are allergic to chrysanthemums or ragweed. Pyrethrin is approved for use on children 2 years of age and older.
2. Permethrin lotion, 1%;
Brand name product: Nix*.
Permethrin is a synthetic pyrethroid similar to naturally occurring pyrethrins. Permethrin lotion 1% is approved by the FDA for the treatment of head lice. Permethrin is safe and effective when used as directed. Permethrin kills live lice but not unhatched eggs. Permethrin may continue to kill newly hatched lice for several days after treatment. A second treatment often is necessary on day 9 to kill any newly hatched lice before they can produce new eggs. Permethrin is approved for use on children 2 months of age and older.
The following medications, in alphabetical order, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of head lice are available only by prescription. If crawling lice are still seen after a full course of treatment, contact your health care provider.
• Benzyl alcohol lotion, 5%;
Brand name product: Ulesfia lotion*
Benzyl alcohol is an aromatic alcohol. Benzyl alcohol lotion, 5% has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of head lice and is considered safe and effective when used as directed. It kills lice but it is not ovicidal. A second treatment is needed 7 days after the first treatment to kill any newly hatched lice before they can produce new eggs. Benzyl alcohol lotion is intended for use on persons who are 6 months of age and older and its safety in persons aged more 60 years has not been established. It can be irritating to the skin.
• Ivermectin lotion, 0.5%;
Brand name product: Sklice*
Ivermectin lotion, 0.5% was approved by the FDA in 2012 for treatment of head lice in persons 6 months of age and older. It is not ovicidal, but appears to prevent nymphs (newly hatched lice) from surviving. It is effective in most patients when given as a single application on dry hair without nit combing. It should not be used for retreatment without talking to a healthcare provider.
Given as a tablet in mass drug administrations, oral ivermectin has been used extensively and safely for over two decades in many countries to treat filarial worm infections. Although not FDA-approved for the treatment of lice, ivermectin tablets given in a single oral dose of 200 micrograms/kg or 400 micrograms/kg repeated in 9-10 days has been shown effective against head lice. It should not be used in children weighing less than 15 kg or in pregnant women.
• Malathion lotion, 0.5%;
Brand name product: Ovide*
Malathion is an organophosphate. The formulation of malathion approved in the United States for the treatment of head lice is a lotion that is safe and effective when used as directed. Malathion is pediculicidal (kills live lice) and partially ovicidal (kills some lice eggs). A second treatment is recommended if live lice still are present 7–9 days after treatment. Malathion is intended for use on persons 6 years of age and older. Malathion can be irritating to the skin. Malathion lotion is flammable; do not smoke or use electrical heat sources, including hair dryers, curlers, and curling or flat irons, when applying malathion lotion and while the hair is wet.
• Spinosad 0.9% topical suspension;
Brand name product: Natroba*
Spinosad is derived from soil bacteria. Spinosad topical suspension, 0.9%, was approved by the FDA in 2011. Since it kills live lice as well as unhatched eggs, retreatment is usually not needed. Nit combing is not required. Spinosad topical suspension is approved for the treatment of children 6 months of age and older. It is safe and effective when used as directed. Repeat treatment should be given only if live (crawling) lice are seen 7 days after the first treatment.
For second–line treatment only:
Lindane shampoo 1%;
Brand name products: None available
Lindane is an organochloride. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) no longer recommends it as a pediculocide. Although lindane shampoo 1% is approved by the FDA for the treatment of head lice, it is not recommended as a first–line treatment. Overuse, misuse, or accidentally swallowing lindane can be toxic to the brain and other parts of the nervous system; its use should be restricted to patients for whom prior treatments have failed or who cannot tolerate other medications that pose less risk. Lindane should not be used to treat premature infants, persons with HIV, a seizure disorder, women who are pregnant or breast–feeding, persons who have very irritated skin or sores where the lindane will be applied, infants, children, the elderly, and persons who weigh less than 110 pounds. Retreatment should be avoided.
When treating head lice
1. Do not use extra amounts of any lice medication unless instructed to do so by your physician and pharmacist. The drugs used to treat lice are insecticides and can be dangerous if they are misused or overused.
2. All the medications listed above should be kept out of the eyes. If they get onto the eyes, they should be immediately flushed away.
3. Do not treat an infested person more than 2–3 times with the same medication if it does not seem to be working. This may be caused by using the medicine incorrectly or by resistance to the medicine. Always seek the advice of your health care provider if this should happen. He/she may recommend an alternative medication.
4. Do not use different head lice drugs at the same time unless instructed to do so by your physician and pharmacist.