Head Lice: What Are Nits?

Nearly every parent encounters head lice at least once. It's a familiar situation: you get a call at work and it's your child's school. The school secretary gives you the news: Your child has head lice!

Most people feel very embarrassed by a head lice infestation, but you shouldn't be. Head lice are very common and there's nothing you can do to prevent them.

Good hygiene will not help. It doesn't matter how clean your child's hair is, lice don't care and they will infest anyone with hair, a scalp, and some tasty blood. They have spiny little legs for hanging on tight to hair strands, and they produce very sticky glue that they use to secure their eggs to the hair shaft. These eggs are called nits.

What are nits?

  • Nits are small, about the size of a knot in a thread. They are very difficult to see and are often mistaken for dandruff.
  • They are usually found right at the base of the hair shaft, usually behind the ears or at the back of the neck.
  • They are oval in shape and are usually yellow or brown. White nits are actually empty egg casings that have already hatched.
  • Nits are attached to the hair shaft by glue.

What should I know?

If your child just has nits and no visible live lice, don't panic. Only one in five children with nits develops a full-blown lice infestation.

Nits alone, without live lice, are not contagious. In fact, no-nit policies enacted by schools (meaning that if a child has any nits at all they are not allowed in school) are unnecessary and counterproductive. Studies have shown that children with nits but no lice have only a 20% chance of infestation. No-nit policies lead to unnecessary pesticide exposure, days of missed school, and missed work for parents.

If there are nits but no live adult lice, comb out the nits and wait to see if any come back. If they reappear, there are some live lice on your child and you will need to seek more treatment.

How do I remove nits?

  • "Nitpick." Remove the nits manually, using a comb. This is effective but time-consuming and tedious, and may have to be repeated for several days.
  • Vinegar can dissolve the glue and help to loosen the bonds between the nit and the hair shaft. This may make nitpicking easier.
  • All-natural herbal remedies help loosen the nits and break down the nits and the lice exoskeletons. Unlike pesticides, they generally have no harmful side effects.

Remember, nits alone are not indicative of a lice infestation. Before you apply dangerous pesticides to your child's head, take the time to see if there are any live lice. Consider trying some home remedies first. These are much less dangerous and are often very effective. 




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