Lice. It's a word that strikes fear into the heart of every parent. Your child comes home from school or camp with a letter that someone has lice. So, what do you do next? Do you bag up everything you own? Fumigate the house? Slather everyone you know in a shampoo medical treatment? Not to worry, Washington Parent has tracked down all you need to know to rid your family of lice.

“No, you don't have to pack away your things for two weeks,” says National Association of Lice Treatment Professionals founding member Nancy Gordon. “Lice need a human host to survive. They don't really survive on your stuff like bedbugs or even fleas. They need to be on your head. Once they are off your head, they don't survive very long.”

What it is

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) website classifies head lice in three different categories: the egg (also known as a nit), the nymph (an immature louse which hatches from the nit) and the adult (fully grown louse), which is typically about the size of a sesame seed. Further, they indicate head lice are almost exclusively found on the scalp. Nits are typically found about one-quarter of an inch from the scalp, along a hair strand and not on the scalp itself.


According to the CDC website “the diagnosis of head lice is best made by finding a live nymph or adult louse on the scalp or hair of a person.” They are quite small and move quickly to avoid light. Using a magnifiying lens and a very fine tooth comb are the best way to find the live lice. Symptoms of lice can include itchiness, redness and rashes.

How it is spread

The most common way lice is spread is through direct head-to-head contact. “We've seen lots of teenagers that are addicted to taking selfies with friends and their hair comes into contact,” says Liz Weirhousky, owner of a Lice Clinics of America in Rockville, MD. While lice can spread through sharing of hats, towels and the like, it remains uncommon. “The lice don't want to come off your head onto a brush.”


When someone in your household is found to have lice, the first thing to do is check other family members as well. However, “one big myth is that everyone in the family has to be treated [for lice] when really you only need to treat the ones who actually have it,” says Gordon. If Mom or Dad or sister don't have lice, do not treat them.

You want to use a very fine tooth comb to get as many of the lice and nits out of the hair. After that, there are different treatment options available. The CDC lists several treatment choices, which can be found at You can purchase an over the counter or prescription medication which is then spread on the scalp and hair to kill any lice and nits. Additionally, there are lice professionals (often known as nitpickers) who can help you eliminiate offenders. Other professionals provide heat treatments to eliminate lice and the nits.

It is important to follow the directions of any medication you use and not to use extra amounts or dosages of any lice medication unless directed by a pharmacist or physician. The CDC recommends not using the same medication more than two or three times if it does not seem to be working. At this point, you want to contact your medical professional for further treatment advice. Additionally, do not use more than one medication at a time to treat a lice infestation.

Closing thoughts

Another important thing you need to do is tell the people you spend the most time with that you have lice. “A lot of pople don't want to tell their friends that they have lice because they don't want people to think they are dirty,” says Weirhousky. “It has nothing to do with bad hygiene or dirty hair; anyone can get lice … If you don't tell [people] they could pass it back to you.”

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