Are Head Lice Contagious?

Head lice, a common childhood ailment, are somewhat contagious. However, most people do not really understand how head lice move from one person to the next. There are many myths and misunderstandings floating around.

Head lice are transmitted by close physical contact between two people. Usually an infected person's head must touch an uninfected person's head for the lice to travel. Common activities that can cause the transmission of head lice:

  • Playing
  • Wrestling
  • Hugging

Head lice need to eat human blood every 3 to 6 hours in order to survive. If they are separated from their food source, they die within a day or two. This means that it is less common but still possible for head lice to be transmitted by the following means:

  • Clothing
  • Combs
  • Brushes
  • Bedding
  • Pillows

Head lice cannot jump or fly. This is the number one myth people hear about head lice. A head lice infestation is not caused by a lack of personal hygiene. Lice will infest anyone, regardless of cleanliness, race, socioeconomic status, or age, although it is more common in children because they tend to have close personal contact when playing with their peers. The length of your hair does not determine your likelihood of becoming infested with head lice.

Girls may be more prone to infestation, but this is because they tend to have more close contact with their friends than boys, not because they have long hair. Head lice are only interested in the scalp and the /4 of inch of hair closest to the scalp, so cutting the hair will not reduce the likelihood of infestation or get rid of an infestation. Humans are the only hosts on which head lice live. They do not infest animals or plants. They must feed on human blood in order to survive.

If your child or a child in your child's class becomes infected with lice, don't panic. Lice are not life-threatening. They do not transmit any disease. At the worst, your child may get a mild scalp infection if they scratch their head too much and cause sores.

If your child has head lice, you may want to take the following actions to reduce the likelihood of transmission to other members of the household:

  • Washing bedding, towels, and clothing. Although the likelihood of transmission through these items is very low, it is possible.
  • Reduce head-to-head contact between infected individuals and others

Treatment options are abundant and varied.

Some popular methods include:

  • Nitpicking, or combing out nits and lice. This is tedious and time-consuming, and may need to be repeated several times in order to be effective. This is best combined with a secondary treatment to ensure effectiveness.
  • Saturate the hair with mayonnaise or conditioner and leave it on overnight, under a shower cap. Some people swear by this method, but there is no scientific evidence that it works.
  • Pesticide shampoos remain one of the most popular methods, but they may have harmful side effects, including seizures. Evidence also shows that lice are becoming more resistant to pesticides, so they may lose their effectiveness as time progresses. It is best to try other, less harmful methods before resorting to pesticides.
  • There are natural shampoos out there without the side affects most over the counter shampoos have.

Photo Credit: pluckytree

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