They're Gross! A Parent's Survival Guide to Lice


MAYWOOD, Ill. – They’re small, creepy and suck your blood. Every parent dreads it, but it’s nearly inevitable —the “lice letter.” Though a lice infestation is about as common as a cold, trying to rid your life of the little buggers can be a real head-scratcher.

“I had treated kids with lice in clinic, but it wasn’t until my own kids brought those scratchy, nasty bugs into our house that I truly understood their impact,” said Dr. Hannah Chow-Johnson, pediatrician at Loyola University Health System and assistant professor of pediatrics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

Often there is a stigma that a person with lice is dirty or doesn’t keep their house clean. According to Chow, this is untrue.

“There is no shame in having lice. In fact, they are attracted to clean, shiny hair so the assumption that only unclean people have lice is false,” Chow said.

She also debunks the myth that head lice carry dangerous diseases.

“Typically, lice do not transmit infections. It’s just creepy to think about and they are a nuisance to already busy moms and dads,” Chow said.

Lice are small insects about the size of a grain of rice, which lay small whitish or brownish eggs called nits. These are glued to hair shafts and are usually found within an inch or two from the scalp. Nits typically hatch in eight to nine days. And baby lice, or nymphs, take another eight to nine days to grow to maturity before mating. They are transmitted from person to person through activities like snuggling, hugging and sleeping in the same bed. They can’t jump or fly, but make their way around when people share hats, backpacks, clothes or by using someone else’s brush or comb.

“Lice need blood in order to survive, so lice that are not attached to humans typically die in two to three days,” Chow said.

Here are some symptoms of a lice infestation:

  • Itchiness (especially behind the ears and the nape of the neck)
  • Bumps on the neck
  • Sometimes there is a feeling of movement in the scalp

“Try checking your child’s hair once a week. It’s inconvenient, but it’s far easier to deal with lice early on than after the bugs have been there for a month,” Chow said.

To check for lice she suggests:

  • Purchase a fine-tooth comb. The combs that come with over-the-counter anti-lice solutions are not fine enough to look for lice or nits.
  • Get a white towel and sit your child by a sink filled with warm water. If your child has longer hair, part it into sections.
  • Spray either water or nit spray on a small section of hair, and starting from the roots, pull the comb completely through the strand.
  • Rinse the comb and wipe it off with the towel. Repeat until you have combed through all the hair on your child’s head.

“It’s not enough to do a quick visual by parting your child’s hair. Lice move very quickly and evade your best efforts,” Chow said.

Lice are also tenacious and can’t be killed with a hot shower or strong shampoo. If you find evidence of lice, treat all members of the household. Also, wash linens and towels on a hot setting of the washing machine. Anything you cannot wash, place in a large trash bag, seal it tightly, and let it sit at least 72 hours. Don’t forget car seats, booster seats, back packs, hats and jackets. If you have one family member with lice, you are better off washing and bagging everyone’s items.

There are many different types of medications for lice, but remember many of these kill live lice, but DO NOT kill nits. If you do not remove the nits, the cycle will start all over again.

“I remember a patient of mine complaining that the lice kept coming back. That was partially true, as they never went away,” Chow said.

She suggests using products that help highlight nits visually. These do not require a prescription and are also effective in eradicating live lice. Keep in mind, however, that they will not destroy the nits. You will still have to comb them out. These solutions only need to be on the hair about 10-15 minutes before killing lice and loosening the glue from the nits.

“For children who have many lice and/or nits, you should check the hair daily as it is easy to miss lice and nits. This is the best way to ensure you eradicate every single one. It takes just two to tango and produce more lice,” Chow said. “After having lice, your child will be more susceptible to it for 6 weeks, so I suggest continuing to use the anti-lice products for those weeks and continue to check daily for lice and nits.”

To prevent future lice infestations, it’s important to remember that lice do not like scents such as mango, rosemary or tea tree oil. Shampoos containing these scents will help deter them. Nit and lice-repellant sprays that should be used daily also are available.

“Be vigilant! Early discovery will save you a lot of time and energy. And in this instance other parents will be grateful your child didn’t share,” Chow said.

For media inquiries, please contact Evie Polsley at [email protected] or call (708) 216-5313 or (708) 417-5100.

Based in the western suburbs of Chicago, Loyola University Health System is a quaternary care system with a 61-acre main medical center campus, the 36-acre Gottlieb Memorial Hospital campus and 22 primary and specialty care facilities in Cook, Will and DuPage counties. The medical center campus is conveniently located in Maywood, 13 miles west of the Chicago Loop and 8 miles east of Oak Brook, Ill. The heart of the medical center campus, Loyola Hospital, is a 569-licensed-bed facility. It houses a Level 1 Trauma Center, a Burn Center and the Ronald McDonald® Children’s Hospital of Loyola University Medical Center. Also on campus are the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, Loyola Outpatient Center, Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine and Loyola Oral Health Center as well as the LUC Stritch School of Medicine, the LUC Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing and the Loyola Center for Fitness. Loyola’s Gottlieb Memorial Hospital campus in Melrose Park includes the 264-bed community hospital, the Gottlieb Center for Fitness and the Marjorie G. Weinberg Cancer Care Center.