Local experts share what every parent needs to know about head lice, including signs your child might have lice, how often you should check for lice, what lice look like, when your child can be around peers, how much of your house needs to be cleaned, and whether lice carry diseases.
What are the signs that my child might have lice?
The biggest sign is to be itchy, but not everybody is itchy. Itching is an allergic reaction to the bug’s saliva and everyone has a different tolerance for it.
—Carol Gilbert, President of Fairy LiceMothers, which has locations in Oceanside and Deer Park, NY
The first sign is continuous scratching or red dots or a red rash on the back of the neck. The scratching usually occurs on the top of the head, the crown, and the cap; behind the ears; and behind the neck. So if your child comes to you and says, “Mom, my head is really itchy,” then you should think head lice.
—Dale Longworth, The Lice Expert of Dobbs Ferry/Westchester, whose salon is located in Dobbs Ferry, NY, and serves clients throughout the New York metro area.
How often should I check my child for lice?
I would recommend parents check their children on a daily basis. I would recommend the parents comb their children’s head with a head lice comb on a daily basis just to insure that if they do have it, they would catch it in time.
—Chris Cerverizzo, owner of Lice Miracles, which is located in Bellmore, NY, and serves New York City and Nassau and Suffolk counties
I always tell my clients to check their child when he or she has a sleepover or comes back from camp, or if you went to Disneyworld or traveled abroad. If you go some place on vacation, it's a good idea to do a preventative comb out.
—Debra Rosen, owner and operator of LiceXchange, whose staff makes house calls to families in the New York metro area
What do louse eggs and bugs look like?
You are looking for the darker eggs that are close to the scalp. They will look not white. They could be translucent but they vary in color depending on the child’s hair color. But usually when they become riper and more viable, they become darker. They usually lay in the warmer areas of the scalp: behind the ears, the nape of the neck, the bang area by the forehead, and the crown of the head. Those are the warmest areas of the scalp and that usually where you look first.
When it’s born, a nymph—a baby—is very translucent in color. When it matures, it becomes darker, and when it actually feeds on the blood, it becomes red. So even during the course of a day, the bug will change color. It has to camouflage with the color of the hair, so it’s very hard to find because of all those differentiations.
The eggs vary in color. Sometimes they’re white, sometimes they’re brown, but the shape is always the same. It’s oval in shape, feels like a grain of sand, and is firmly attached to the hair shaft. The only way you can get it out is by pulling it out with your fingers, and that’s how you tell the difference between an egg and dandruff. Because dandruff you can just scratch with your finger and it would come right off.
—Anna Albano-Krosche, The Lice Lady of Westchester, whose salon is located in Elmsford, NY
What should I do if I think my child has lice?
Have the child checked out by a professional to verify that they do have head lice. And then once they verify that the child has head lice, I would recommend the child have a professional service. Because its very tedious for parents to do this process. It could take parents hours and hours to remove head lice. And they really don’t know what they’re looking for sometimes because the bugs and eggs are so minute that they could be overlooked very easily.
How do I know the lice are gone?
When you have treatment, after the first treatment, it should be nice and under control. But as the hair grows, there are stray nits. So you’re going to expect to find, over the next week or two, a nit or two here, or if it was a very big case, maybe you’ll find six or seven nits when you’re combing out the next day. That’s normal, that’s fine. But if you’re combing and you find a cluster of eggs in one area—that’s how they like to lay, five or six in one spot and very close to the head—then that is a sign of a bug. If you’re not seeing a sign of the bug, you don’t have to worry.
—Adie Horowitz, owner of Licenders, which has locations in Manhattan and Long Island, NY, and Stamford, CT
How long until the lice are not contagious and my child can be around other children?
As soon as [a professional service] gets rid of all the bugs, they are at a non-contagious state and can go back to normal activities. Even if you’re doing treatment yourself at home and you get rid of all the bugs, you’re fine. But you have to continue combing for the 2 weeks. If there are any eggs left after the first treatment, the eggs themselves are not contagious—you can’t give somebody an egg, and even if it hatched, the babies, they’re called nymphs, are not contagious for 5 days. So as long as you’re combing every day for the first week and every other day for the second week, everything is under control and you’re at a non-contagious state.
How much of my house do I need to clean when my child has lice? How?
The house is almost like a myth. The louse bug needs to feed on your child’s head, so the house is done in, I suggest, the first 24 hours. You vacuum the floors, vacuum the furniture, and change the bedding. If you don’t want to wash everything, high heat works tremendously well. We tell everyone to put things in the dryer on high heat for 20 minutes. Stuffed animals can be bagged usually for 4-7 days, or they can be put in the dryer on high heat for 20 minutes. But you don’t have to take everything out of the drawers or out of the closets. You don’t have to go too crazy with the house. You don’t have to take curtains down, like some people do. It’s basically the surfaces of the house and that’s why we recommend vacuum the furniture, vacuum the floors and do the beddings the child has been in contact with.
Basically the parent has to look at washing all the sheets on the beds, putting the comforter in the dryer to kill the head lice and to make sure they don’t get re-infected. Vacuum the floors and the rugs, clean the car seats, and the couches. Most importantly, don’t share towels in the household or share the same comb. They would have to sterilize the combs, this way everything is dead.
Do lice carry diseases?
Lice are not dangerous, but it’s uncomfortable.