Every parent dreads getting a notice from school that their child has head lice and has to be treated.
“It’s time-consuming, and it’s often very costly for families,” says family nurse practitioner Wendy Wright, who serves on a head lice advice panel called Headfirst! for Sanofi Pasteur.
Chances are, you’ll probably find yourself scratching your own head while you figure out what to do, worrying that the lice may have found their way onto your scalp, too.
But don’t panic.
“Most head lice occurs in school-age children, and the most common age is 3 to 11,” says Wright. “Certainly it’s possible for the parents to get it, or the older siblings, but it’s a lot less common.”
Lice feed on human blood, and they move by crawling. And they only can live off the human body for a day or so, says Wright. So the key to keeping head lice away from your own head is avoiding head-to-head contact with someone who has lice.
But if your child is a snuggler who loves to cuddle up close to you in bed in the morning, it may be too late! It takes two to three weeks after the initial infestation for the child to start to scratch, so you won’t know you’ve been exposed until it’s too late.
“The battle is probably already lost,” says Dr. Barbara Frankowski, professor of pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and the co-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ most recent clinical report on head lice.
Even so, you’ll want to be vigilant about getting your own head checked out. You might not need to be treated, but it’s worth asking your spouse or another trusted person to regularly check your head, particularly behind your ears and the hairline on your neck. Just in case.
“I hate to say, across the board, yes, if the kid shares the bed with the parent, then both parents should be treated,” says Dr. Frankowski. “You might want to be judicious about your decision.”
It’s also a good idea to avoid sharing caps, hats, brushes and combs with someone who’s had lice until you’re sure the lice are gone, even though the direct head-to-head contact is the vector for transmission.
If your best prevention efforts fail, what should you do? Should you treat yourself, or should you head to a head lice salon?
Wright says salons are more of a convenience than anything else.
“All it is is that you’re paying someone to do the treatment for you and to comb out the nits for you,” she says, cautioning, “To use some of these salons, it’s incredibly cost-prohibitive for some families.”
“It depends on your level of patience,” agrees Frankowski. “Those salons charge a lot of money.”
Plus, you have a number of possible home treatment options, including prescription treatments like benzyl alcohol lotion, which is sold under the name Ulesfia, or the topical suspension spinosad sold under the name Natroba. Lice haven’t yet developed any resistance to those newer treatments, so they might be worth a try if your insurance covers them, Frankowski says.