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Whether or not you’ve experienced head lice first-hand, we all share the same sentiment about it: hard pass. Unfortunately, we may not be able to avoid it. According to a recent press release from the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), head lice affects an estimated six to 12 million children ages three to 12 every year in the U.S. As with many things in life, though, educating yourself can help prevent it from ever happening in your own household.
Even though head lice are much more common among children, the little bugs can have plenty of unwanted and uncomfortable side effects for people of all ages. You know — the itching, scratching, and spreading to all other family members. Whether you have kids, you’re around kids a lot, or you’re just the type of person who likes to stay knowledgeable on parasitic insects that live and feed off the human scalp — presumably so you can avoid ever having to deal with them yourself — then keep reading. We’re breaking down everything there is to know about head lice: the bad (it’s very transmissible) and the good (it’s not quite as transmissible as you might think).
What is head lice?
“Head lice are insects that live exclusively on the scalp of humans,” explains Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Yes, you read that right: They are tiny insects that live in human hair and feed off of tiny amounts of blood from the scalp, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Scientifically known as pediculosis capitis, head lice aren’t contracted as a result of slacking on your personal hygiene practices. “Having head lice does not mean that you are dirty; the lice have no preference for clean or dirty hair,” Zeichner explains. They simply spread via direct contact with the head of a person who has them. Or less common, they’re spread from a clothing item, brush, or furniture that a lice-carrying person had contact with, according to Michele Farber, a dermatologist in New York City.
Even though it’s disturbing to discover these small bugs in your hair, they don’t carry any infectious, bacterial, or viral diseases. They are simply there to crawl around, feed off of blood, and cause a variety of uncomfortable — though not life-threatening — side effects.
What are the symptoms of head lice?
One word: itching. If you or someone in your family has an itchy scalp or you see them scratching, it is important to check the hair, Zeichner advises. To do so, you’ll want to use a fine-tooth comb to part the hair while it’s wet, then examine the roots and scalp itself. What you’re looking for are tiny white bugs that Mayo Clinic describes as about the size of a strawberry seed, which “may be most visible behind the ears and along the hairline,” Zeichner says.
You might be able to spot the tiny bugs moving around, or you’ll see their eggs, which are called nits. It will also be easy to tell them apart from other common scalp issues like dandruff or dry scalp. “Lice, and in particular the nits, are firmly attached to the hair, while dandruff will easily flake off,” says Farber. “Nits are most commonly seen behind the ears accompanying lymph swelling, and a rash on the neck can be clues.”
How is head lice spread?
Fortunately, these little buggers cannot, despite popular belief, jump from head to head. Rather, they crawl. In order to spread, there usually needs to be “direct contact with an infected person’s head,” Farber explains, which is why lice is so common among children (who often play with each other in close contact all day long).