If a child is scratching their head a lot, there's a chance the child has head lice.
Head lice are tiny insects that sort of look like a grain of rice with six legs. They infect the hair on your head, laying tiny eggs that look like dandruff. Because they can live up to 30 days on a human, head lice spread easily, especially among children at school and daycare centers. You can get them in close contact with others who have head lice or by sharing hats, towels, brushes, or combs of someone with head lice.
Head lice cause intense itching on your child's scalp. Your child may have small, red bumps on their scalp, neck, and even their shoulders. You may notice tiny white specks, they're head lice eggs, on the bottom of hair, close to your child's scalp.
You'll need to look closely at your child's hair to see head lice. Look at their head under a bright light with a magnifying glass, and make sure you wear disposable gloves. Part your child's head down to the scalp in very small sections. You'll be able to see moving lice and eggs. The eggs will be very hard to remove because they're attached to the hair with a substance that's like glue.
Among the most common solutions are lotions and shampoos that contain a chemical called permethrin, or Nix. You can find them at a drug store. You can also use several natural remedies. If these don't work, your child's doctor can give you something stronger. You may need to treat others who've shared a bed or clothing with the child who has lice.
After treating your child's head, you'll want to remove all of the eggs. Some dishwashing liquids can help dissolve that "glue" that makes the eggs stick to hair, or you can rub olive oil in the hair. A fine metal comb is best for removing the eggs, and running the comb's teeth through beeswax first will help. This is called nit combing. You'll want to comb the child's hair for eggs again in about 7 to 10 days. Some people treat lice with careful nit combing alone, perhaps combined with heat.
Lice can survive up to 55 hours without contact with a human host, so it's also important to wash all of the child's clothing and bedding in hot water with detergent, unless you can ensure no contact for more than 55 hours. This helps prevent the lice from spreading to others.
Treating lice usually kills them, but they may come back, especially if the infection is running through your child's classroom or daycare. That's why when one case is detected in a family, school, or daycare center, it makes sense for every child at the location to be examined for head lice.
Review Date: 5/20/2019
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.