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Are Head Lice Contagious?

Expert Pediatrics Q&A


Updated July 23, 2006

Q. I received a letter that some kids at school are infected with head lice. Should I be worried about my child having lice?

A. Head lice infestations are a common problem in infants and children, even in those who practice good hygiene and frequent hair washing. Lice only infect humans and they are spread by direct contact with someone who is already infected or by use of their belongings (such as hats, brushes or combs).

Head lice don't jump from one child's head to another, so if he has been careful about not sharing hats, brushes or combs, then he may not have lice. The most common symptom of children infected with head lice is itching, although some children do not complain if they have a light infestation.

Even if he has no complaints or symptoms, at this point, if there is a head lice epidemic at school, then you should just begin checking your child regularly for live lice. Adult lice are reddish-brown and 1/16 of an inch long. They move very fast and are most commonly seen at the back of the neck and behind the ears. Lice can only survive for two to three days when off of the human body. Nits are eggs from the adult lice and are whitish and are firmly attached to hairs. The eggs hatch in 6-10 days and it then takes another two to three weeks for the lice to mature and be able to reproduce.

Reviewing some head lice pictures can make it helpful so you know what to look for.

If you just see nits, then you should try to remove them all and continue to check your child regularly, even daily, for live lice.

Treatment with an anti-lice shampoo will be necessary if you see live lice or if you continue to see new nits, which is a sign of a live head lice infestation.

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