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Help! My Son Has Lice

Our expert explains what you need to know to treat this common childhood annoyance.

Mom grooming her son of parasitic head lice with a nit comb.
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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Dear Doctor,

My 6-year-old son came home from school with lice! What should I do to treat lice and how can I prevent it in the future?

Sincerely,

“Itchy Mom”

Dear Itchy Mom:

I'm sorry to hear that your son came home with lice—what a way to start out the school year! While lice are certainly an annoyance, you can rest assured that it will not cause any serious injuries or long-term medical issues.

When a member of your family comes home with lice, your first step should be to treat it. There’s no need to hire an expensive company to come to your home with the promise of a magic cure. Just head to the nearest pharmacy and pick up an over-the-counter lice-treatment shampoo. Instructions may vary by brand, but the typical course of action is to apply the shampoo to your child's hair, leave it on for as long as instructed, then wash it out and comb with a lice comb. After treatment, it is important to follow the shampoo’s after-treatment instructions, which may include repeated shampooing and checking the treated hair every two to three days for about three weeks to make sure the lice are gone. If you have concerns that the treatment didn't work, give your pediatrician a call.

It’s also key that you examine the entire family, yourself included. Carefully look through each family member’s scalp with a fine tooth comb–if you see small brown spots that appear to be moving (or are stuck to individual hairs), you've found lice, and will need to treat it as outlined above. If you see nits—head lice eggs that are usually found at the base of the hair shaft near the scalp—but no crawling lice, then the eggs have probably already hatched and there is no need to treat for lice again. And don’t worry—you can’t pass lice on to your pet or catch your pet’s lice.

Lice can live on clothes, bedding and even stuffed animals, which brings us to the next phase: cleaning items that may be contaminated. Wash any clothes, bedding and materials that the infected person may have come in contact with in hot water (at least 130 degrees) to kill any lice that may be living there. Vacuum floors and furniture, and place all hair accessories, brushes and stuffed animals in sealed plastic bags for two weeks. This will suffocate and kill any lice left on these items.

To prevent lice in the future, it's important to teach children not to share hair accessories (think hats, barrettes, combs, bandanas or even towels). Lice don't jump, they only crawl—so playfully putting two heads together can also be an opportunity for them to spread.

With these steps, your family will stay protected from your son's lice—which should clear up fairly quickly after you've treated it.

“After treatment, it is important to check his hair every two to three days for about three weeks to make sure the lice are gone.”
Minu George, MD

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Published September 23rd, 2019
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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