Head lice. Your scalp starts itching as soon as you think about the pesky critters. For parents of young children, a case of head lice is nearly inevitable. Some 6-12 million people get head lice each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And guess what? Most of the lice in the United States are now resistant to the most common over-the-counter medications, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Medical Entomology. This makes the odds of kids getting lice even higher, as they are tougher to kill.
While most parents freak out about lice, there really isn’t that much to worry about. There are multiple myths about head lice that can be busted to reduce the fear factor.
Myth #1 Lice Are Dangerous
Wrong. Head lice pose little or no health risk–at worst maybe a rash from kids scratching too much. The CDC says, “Head lice should not be considered as a medical or public health hazard. Head lice are not known to spread disease. Head lice can be an annoyance because their presence may cause itching and loss of sleep. Sometimes the itching can lead to excessive scratching that can sometimes increase the chance of a secondary skin infection.”
Myth #2 Lice Jump from Head to Head
Wrong again. Lice don’t fly or jump. The primary way they are spread is through hair-to-hair contact. That’s why young children are most at risk–they play together, sleep together, share combs and brushes, etc. Back to the CDC: “Head lice move by crawling; they cannot hop or fly. Head lice are spread by direct contact with the hair of an infested person. Anyone who comes in head-to-head contact with someone who already has head lice is at greatest risk.”
Myth #3 Dirty People Get Lice
This is the most harmful myth of all because it causes people to hide the fact that there are lice in their home, and the problem just gets worse. The CDC is clear on this issue as well: “Personal hygiene or cleanliness in the home or school has nothing to do with getting head lice.” In fact, Professor Rick Speare of James Cook University in Australia has researched head lice for years and says, “The underlying message, which is supported by evidence, is that head lice occur in hair clean or dirty.”
Myth #4 You Can Get Lice from Animals
Nope. Lice can only live on tiny sips of human blood. They can’t survive on animals, stuffed or live. The CDC says “Adult head lice can live only a day or so off the human head without blood for feeding.” No human, no lice. They have specially adapted claws designed specifically to hold onto human hair, as that is the only place they can survive.
Myth #5 You can Suffocate Lice
There are all sorts of home remedies recommended to suffocate lice using household products like mayonnaise or olive oil. None are proven effective. Lice can hold their breath for about eight hours, so swimming won’t help either. Also, lice eggs, or nits, don’t breath, so suffocation, if effective at all, will only kill live lice. The eggs are the real hard part of lice removal. They are barely visible and latch on to hair with arachnoid superglue.
Myth #6 You Have to Fumigate Your House to Get Rid of Lice
Go online and you’ll find lots of advice about how to clear a house of head lice–gather anything with fabric and put it in the garage for two weeks; wash every linen; banish all stuffed animals. Since lice can only live 24 hours without a human host, you only need to make sure that the bedding and linens of the person with lice get cleaned–along with hair brushes and combs. The only risk of getting lice is if hair from the person with lice has fallen somewhere where another person’s hair may come into contact with it. Experts recommend putting linens and bedding in the dryer on high heat for 20 minutes and cleaning hair accessories in water heated to 130 degrees.