Head lice affect millions of children every year. Schoolchildren are commonly affected by head lice, which attach to hair & feed on human blood.

“Although head lice are a year-round problem, the number of cases usually peaks during back-to-school time in the fall & again in January,” says Patricia Brown, M.D., a dermatologist at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

Here are some tips to protect your children & your family from this menace.

Who Is at Risk for Getting Head Lice

No matter how good your personal hygiene or how well you clean your home, you can get head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis).

The most common way to get head lice is direct contact with someone who has head lice. Children who spend a lot of time together in close quarters, such as playing or during sports activities, are at risk. Because children play so closely together & often in large groups, lice can easily travel from child to child, especially when they touch heads while playing or talking.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimate that 6 million to 12 million cases of head lice occur each year in the U.S. in children ages 3 to 11. Head lice cases are most common among children attending childcare or school, & the household members of children with head lice.

Head lice do not live on animals, & you cannot get head lice from your pets. Head lice feed only on humans.

Identifying & Treating Head Lice

Head lice are blood-sucking insects about the size of a sesame seed & are tan to grayish-white in color. They attach themselves to the skin of the head (scalp) & lay eggs (nits) in the hair. Although uncommon, head lice can be spread by sharing clothing or belongings.

You can check for head lice or nits by parting the hair in several spots. Use a magnifying glass & a bright light to help spot them. Lice don’t fly or jump; they move by crawling.
Because head lice can move fast, it may be easier to spot the nits. Nits can look like dandruff. You can identify them by picking up a strand of hair close to the scalp & pulling your fingernail across the area where you suspect a nit. Dandruff will come off easily, but nits will stay firmly attached to the hair.

FDA-approved treatments for head lice include nonprescription (over-the-counter, or OTC) & prescription drugs in shampoo, cream rinse (conditioner), & lotion formulations. Some of these drugs are available in kits that include a small, fine-tooth comb. Separately packaged lice removal combs or comb-like devices are also available & used to remove &/or kill lice & nits.

“Many head lice products are not for use in children younger than 2. So read the label carefully before using a product to make sure it is safe to use on your child,” Brown says.

Talk with your child’s health care professional or your pharmacist about the recommended treatments based on your child’s age & weight. Treatments should be used on children only under the direct supervision of an adult.

Help Your Family Prevent Head Lice

  • Teach children to avoid head-to-head contact during play & other activities at home, school, & elsewhere (for example sports, playgrounds, slumber parties, & camps).
  • Teach children not to share clothing & supplies, such as hats, scarves, helmets, sports uniforms, towels, combs, brushes, bandanas, hair ties, & headphones.
  • Disinfect combs & brushes used by a person with head lice by soaking them in hot water (at least 130°F) for 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Do not lie on beds, couches, pillows, carpets, or stuffed animals that have recently been in contact with a person with head lice.
  • Vacuum the floor & furniture, particularly where the person with lice sat or laid. Head lice survive less than one or two days if they fall off the scalp & cannot feed.
  • Clean items that have been in contact with the head of a person with lice in the 48 hours before treatment. Machine wash & dry clothing, bed linens, & other items using hot water (130°F) & a high heat drying cycle. Clothing & items that are not washable can be dry-cleaned or sealed in a plastic bag & stored for two weeks.
  • Do not use insecticide sprays or fogs. They are not necessary to control head lice & can be toxic if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
  • After finishing treatment with lice medication, check everyone in your family for lice after several weeks. If you find live lice, contact your health care professional.