Dealing With Head Lice: What A Dermatologist Will Tell You

Head lice infestations are common in pre-school and elementary school children in the United States. In children aged 3 to 11, the CDC estimates that there are between 6 million and 12 million infestations every year, so this is one of the most common problems that parents are likely to face. In many cases, it's relatively easy to deal with this problem, but an infestation is sometimes more persistent and requires more treatment. If your child has a problem with head lice, learn more about how you can deal with the problem, and make sure you can eradicate the issue once and for all.

How kids catch head lice

Head lice spread when people come into direct contact with each other. Children are at high risk because of the way they play together at home and school. You can also catch head lice from clothing, hair accessories and bedding that an infested child has used, but this is a less common problem. Lice move by crawling and cannot hop or fly.

Research suggests that some ethnic groups are at higher risk than others. For example, African-American children generally suffer with head lice less than Caucasian children because the pests find it harder to grasp this type of hair.


Children will often complain of an itchy head, or you may simply notice your child scratching a lot. It's relatively easy to spot a head lice infestation. Wet the child's hair, as this stops the lice scurrying away and makes it easier to spot a problem. Sit the child under a bright light and then separate the hair into sections by slowly combing out from the scalp section by section.

You may see adult lice, but you're more likely to find the eggs, which most people refer to as nits. The lice attach their eggs firmly to the hair, so they're generally easier to find. Adult lice resemble brown sesame seeds, and move quickly. Nits are normally yellow or brown and look like small seeds. Things like sand, dust and dirt will easily comb out, but nits are difficult to move.

Home treatment

You can buy lice shampoo from your chemist or grocery store without a prescription. Apply the shampoo according to the manufacturer's instructions, but make sure your child is fully clothed when you use the product. Avoid skin contact with these medicated products, as they may cause irritation. Don't use more than the suggested dose, and don't mix products. Dermatologists warn that different products sometimes become harmful when you use them together.

Use the special comb that normally comes with lice shampoo. These devices make it easier to remove nits from your child's hair. Inspect the hair 8 to 12 hours after you apply the shampoo. If it doesn't seem to have worked, talk to a dermatologist for more advice. If the shampoo works, don't wash the hair for a couple of days, and keep combing through to get rid of the lice and nits.

Reapply the shampoo according to the manufacturer's instructions. Some parents decide to shave the scalp to speed up the process, but this is unlikely to go down well with young girls! Treat everyone in the family at the same time, and change sheets and bedding to cut the risk of further infestation.

Dermatologist treatments

If over-the-counter medications don't work, you may need to visit a dermatology clinic for more help. The dermatologist can often prescribe stronger products that can eradicate the infestation.

Some lotions are very potent. They work by paralyzing and killing the lice, but you must take care to keep these products out of your children's eyes. These products are also often highly flammable, so treat your kids in a well-ventilated room away from hot electrical appliances or cigarettes. You can use benzyl alcohol lotion on older children. This solution kills lice, but you will need to retreat your children a few times because the lotion doesn't kill the eggs.

Children can suffer temporary side effects from these treatments. For example, your child may suffer from dry hair or skin. He or she may also experience some stinging. These symptoms will normally subside quickly, but stop using the product immediately if the side effects become more severe.

Head lice are a common problem in children, but it's relatively easy to treat an infestation. Talk to a dermatologist if you have any concerns.