What is Head Lice?
facts of lice
Head lice are six-legged wingless insects measuring between 2-3 millimeters, about the size of a sesame seed. They can vary in color from grayish white to reddish brown and have the ability to adapt their color to their environment.
While they cannot jump or fly, head lice can crawl quickly along the hair shaft. As parasites, they depend on human blood for survival and must have a “blood meal” (at the scalp) every two to three hours to survive.
The female has a lifespan of up to 30 days, during which time she can produce between 3 and 10 eggs (nits) per day, attaching them to the hair shaft, generally close to the scalp where environments are the warmest.
Nits may look like dandruff but can vary in color from whitish to tan to even reddish brown, making them hard for an untrained eye to recognize and see. They are attached to the hair with a sticky glue-like protein substance which forms a bond that is difficult to break without specialized products and techniques.
Nits hatch between one and two weeks after they’re laid. Baby lice are known as nymphs, and they become adult lice between one and two weeks after hatching. Adult lice mature to about the size of a sesame seed.
Though very small, lice can be seen with the naked eye. Nymphs and nits are even smaller and it may require an expert to identify them with certainty.
Who Gets Lice
The CDC reports that somewhere between 6 and 12 million people in the United States are infested annually.
Children from 3 to 11 years old are particularly susceptible, no one is immune and anyone can get head lice.
All socioeconomic classes are affected.
Some research concludes that girls are more commonly infested, but neither hair length nor personal hygiene is a predictive factor. Lice, in fact, prefer clean hair, since it’s easier to adhere to than oily hair.
No one knows why some people are more prone than others to having head lice, but blood type and Rh factor seem to be elements.
Once someone gets lice, the possibility of getting them again, especially in the short term, has proven to be greater.
Removing Head Lice and Preventing Re-Infestation
Specialized products that immobilize the live lice and nymphs and then break the bond between the hair and the glue-like substance that holds the nit to the hair shaft must be used. Also, manual nit removal, which is the process of going strand-by-strand through the hair to physically remove the nits, is the only way to ensure lice are completely removed.
Be careful about products and services that claim to KILL HEAD LICE. Most products (either those utilized by an independent service or those purchased for home use) would need to be placed on the head for an extended period of time in order to actually kill an adult louse or a maturing nymph, and many of the products that do so are toxic in nature. Additionally, research proves that NO product can kill lice eggs (nits). The only confirmed way to completely remove a case of head lice in one treatment is to manually remove every louse, nymph and nit!
Prevention is key, and after head lice have been effectively removed, there are ways to help keep them away. Following these preventive measures reduces the risk of re-infestation:
ineffective Head lice treatments
Some Lice Treatments May Not Work
Why They May Be Ineffective and/or Possibly Dangerous
Over the Counter Treatments:
Over the counter treatments contain permethrin/pyrethin, which is derived from chrysanthemums. Children and adults exposed to these products can have symptoms of redness, swelling, excessive itching and respiratory distress. In addition, published research indicates that 80% of adult lice are resistant to these over the counter treatments. Some studies have drawn connections between overuse of these products with leukemia and autism. Regardless, after the treatment is administered – the nits and bugs still need to be manually removed through combing.
Malathion is a neurotoxin and is, ironically, commonly prescribed by doctors to treat a head lice infestation. It is extremely flammable and in order to be somewhat effective, needs to remain on the head for 8-12 hours. In addition, Malathion can cause serious side effects such as nosebleeds, flu-like symptoms and a burning sensation on the scalp. Manual removal is required with this product
This is the most dangerous of all of the lice treatments. Though you can only access it though a prescription, Lindane has been banned from 53 countries and is completely banned in California. The EPA has also banned its use as an insecticide because it is very toxic to the environment. According to the drug literature, Lindane should not be used on babies, the elderly or anyone weighing less than 110lbs as serious side effects can occur.
Benzyl Alcohol is a fairly new lice treatment on the market. It is by prescription only and is used to smother adult lice. Unfortunately, this product does nothing for nits or eggs – they still must be manually removed through combing.
Controlled Heated Air Devices:
Controlled Heated Air Devices are a technology that claim to “dehydrate” the bugs and kill all three stages of head lice. The claims of this device have not been substantiated by any independent studies or research, and are based on the company’s own studies. This type 1 medical device is cleared by the FDA for marketing purposes only and the data stating their efficacy has not been reviewed or substantiated by the FDA. In addition, Controlled Heated Air Devices are not safe for children under the age of 4, those with sensory deficits or sensory integration disorder, or on anyone with open scabs from scratching. Potential side effects can be scalp burns, dry, damaged and brittle hair from excessive drying and combing on dry hair. Per the company’s own literature, live lice and bugs will remain in the hair after treatment, as well as dead lice and nits. Manual removal is necessary.
Cetaphil, Vaseline and Olive Oil
These type of treatments rely on smothering to kill the bugs. The products must remain on the hair for 8-12 hours at a time and these treatments must be repeated 3-4 times over a period of weeks to get rid of all lice. These treatments do not get rid of the nits and thorough combing is necessary to make sure everything is removed from the hair.
Bottom Line: Even the world’s best lice experts need a microscope to identify whether or not a nit is viable(alive). That is why experts recommend that every nit and louse be combed or picked out of the hair during a head lice infestation. Regardless of which treatment you may choose, manual removal (wet combing) with a fine-tooth lice comb and nit-picking, is the only effective and guaranteed way to get rid of a head lice infestation. There are no short-cuts to complete removal during a head lice infestation. The amount of time spent on removing head lice depends on the length and thickness of the infested person's hair along with the severity of the infestation.