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Itchy Scalp? How to spot head lice early

The new school year is about to start, and dermatologists encourage parents to be on the lookout for these pesky critters.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Imagine, your child comes home from school scratching their head. They have head lice.

It may make you squirm just thinking about it. While it may be an inconvenience for the entire family, head lice are also common. According to The American Academy of Dermatology, pediculosis capitis, the medical term for the infestation of head lice, affects six to twelve million children each year in the US.

Lice are parasitic insects that feed on human blood. They can be found on people's heads, and bodies, including the pubic area. Lice found on each area of the body are different from each other. The three types of lice that live on humans are:  Pediculus humanus capitis (head lice), Pediculus humanus corporis (body lice), and Pthirus pubis (“crab” lice).

Lice infestations (pediculosis and pthiriasis) are spread most commonly by close person-to-person contact. Dogs, cats, and other pets do not play a role in the transmission of human lice. Lice move by crawling; they cannot hop or fly. Lice are also not a sign of poor personal hygiene or an unclean living environment and they don’t carry bacterial or viral infectious diseases.

However, they can cause some uncomfortable symptoms. An itchy scalp is the most obvious symptom of head lice. Other signs and symptoms include a crawling sensation, seeing lice or eggs, difficulty sleeping (as head lice are most active at night), scratch marks around the hair line, swollen lymph nodes in the neck and pink eye.

Keep in mind that adults can get head lice, too. If you notice any of these signs and symptoms, make sure to get checked for lice.

Dermatologists offer up these tips to prevent and find lice.

1. Avoid sharing certain items: To help prevent lice in the future, teach your child to avoid sharing objects that touch the head, such as brushes, combs, hats and accessories.

2. Check your child’s hair. Grab a fine-tooth comb and sit under a bright light for better visibility. Wet your child’s hair and separate it into sections. Beginning at the scalp, slowly comb outward through the hair, section by section. Although they're very small, lice can be seen by the naked eye. Lice eggs are yellow, brown or tan and look like tiny seeds that appear to be cemented to hairs close to the scalp. If an egg has hatched, the seed-like object will be clear.  Adult lice are usually light-brown and resemble sesame seeds. They also move very quickly.

3. Inspect household items, including the hamper. Most lice spread through head-to-head contact. However, head lice can also crawl onto objects that meet human hair, such as sheets, pillowcases and towels. Carefully inspect the clothes your child has worn the past two days, as lice may have crawled onto these items. If you find signs of lice, machine wash and dry household items and clothes using the hottest temperatures.

See your doctor if your child is constantly scratching his or her head or complains of an itchy scalp that won't go away. Other conditions or items in the hair may look like head lice. People can sometimes mistake hairspray droplets, scabs, or dirt for eggs. The doctor should be able to tell you if your child is infested with lice and needs to be treated. Not all kids have the classic symptoms of head lice and some can be symptom-free.

If you discover that your child does, indeed, have lice or nits, contact the staff at the school and childcare center to let them know. Lice are highly contagious and can spread quickly from person-to-person, especially in group settings like schools, childcare centers, slumber parties, sports activities, and camps.

To treat a head lice infestation, people can use medicines called pediculicides, which kill head lice. Some treatments are not suitable for young children, so it is best to check with a doctor or pharmacist before using them.

There are numerous home remedies that people claim can treat head lice, but there is a lack of scientific evidence to show that these remedies are effective and safe.

For more information: https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/index.html.