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How to handle lice 

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School is back in session, which means your child is at greater risk of head lice infestation. Here’s everything you need to know to prevent, recognize and treat lice.

Emily Shiffer

By Emily Shiffer

Summer vacation is over, and the kids are back in school. That means no more weekday picnics or days spent lounging by the pool. And there’s another bummer to deal with when school is back in session: head lice. 

Among children ages 3 to 11, there are an estimated 6 to 12 million cases of lice infestation every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Adults can also have lice, but it’s more common in children. 

Knowing the symptoms of a head lice infestation can help you get rid of them, fast — before they spread to other heads in your household. Luckily, there are also ways to lower your child’s risk of getting lice in the first place. Here’s what you need to know. 

And if your doctor prescribes a medication to treat lice, we want to help. Download our prescription coupon mobile app to find discounts and compare costs at local pharmacies.   

What are head lice? 

Lice are parasitic insects that feed on blood from your scalp. You typically find them on your head, specifically:  

  • On your scalp 
  • Behind your ears 
  • Near your neckline at the back of your head 
  • In your eyebrows 
  • In your eyelashes 

How did my child get lice? 

“Lice are spread from person to person through direct physical contact,” says Hadley King, MD. She’s a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. Lice also spread from objects, “such as combs or other grooming articles, or hats, scarves or towels,” Dr. King says. 

The parasite deposits about 6 eggs per day on the hair shaft close to the scalp. The eggs are laid at a slanted angle with chitin (a hard protective cover) in egg sacks. These sacks are called nits. It takes about 8 to 9 days for the egg to hatch. Adult lice live for about 30 days. 

Recommended reading: Your complete back-to-school guide to medications (and more). 

What are the symptoms of a lice infestation? 

“Itching is generally the first symptom,” Dr. King says. 

Your child will likely start scratching their head a lot, which can cause issues of its own. 

“The scratches can become infected,” Dr. King says. “If the infections are severe enough, they can cause scarring, which can cause hair loss.” 

Your child may complain about feeling something moving around in their hair. They may have difficulty sleeping, since lice are most active at night. 

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How do you get rid of lice? 

Medications that treat head lice are called pediculicides. You typically apply them to your scalp. 

Most of these are topical treatments you apply to your scalp. 

There are over-the-counter (OTC) medicine options to treat head lice, including: 

  • Permethrin lotion (Nix®
  • Pyrethrin combined with piperonyl butoxide (RID®, Triple X®) 
  • Ivermectin lotion (Sklice®) 

“These treatments kill live lice but not unhatched eggs, so a second treatment is recommended after 9 days,” Dr. King says. 

After applying the treatment, comb any dead lice and remaining live lice out of your hair using a fine-toothed nit comb.  

If OTC medications don’t do the trick, your doctor might prescribe you a stronger treatment. These medication options include: 

A second treatment is recommended if your child still has lice 7 to 9 days after administering these medications. 

Lindane shampoo used to be a popular way to get rid of lice. But the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) no longer recommends the shampoo because it can be neurotoxic in the water supply. 

How do you prevent lice? 

Preventing lice can be tough if your children spend their days around other children. But there are ways you can try to lower their risk of catching lice. 

The main way kids get lice is through head-to-head contact with a lice-infested person, according to the CDC. This might occur during recess or playtime at school. It also might happen at sleepovers or during sports. You can encourage your child to avoid touching the heads or hair of other children. 

Although it is less likely, sharing personal clothing or objects can also spread lice infestations, according to an AAP report. Teach your child not to share items such as: 

  • Combs 
  • Brushes 
  • Hats 
  • Scarves 
  • Hair ribbons 
  • Hair barrettes 
  • Towels 

If, despite your best efforts, you get that dreaded call from your child’s school, don’t panic. The CDC notes that children do not need to be sent home right away after the discovery of lice. 

How long will my kid’s lice be contagious?

“Kids can return to school when there are no live lice on the hair or scalp,” Dr. King says. “Nits are not contagious until they hatch.” 

Before you pick up your child’s lice medication, be sure to print out the free Optum Perks discount card. Bring it with you to the pharmacy to save up to 80% on prescriptions. 

 

Additional sources
Lice overview: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 
Lice treatment: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 
Lice information for schools: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 

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