Going back to school doesn’t include just students. Hitchhikers in the form of head lice may also join the classrooms.

Roughly two or three millimeters long (slightly larger than a sesame seed), head lice infest the head and neck, attaching their eggs to the base of the hair shaft. They are easily spread — especially by schoolchildren — through close personal contact and by sharing belongings such as clothing, headphones, brushes, combs, hair decorations, towels, blankets, pillows and stuffed toys.

Lice move by crawling. Though they cannot hop, fly or walk on the ground, adult lice and their eggs (nits) are easily spread by storing infected clothing near others in closets, lockers or on side-by-side hooks at school. Lying on a bed or sitting in overstuffed, cloth-covered furniture recently used by someone infected with lice can spread them. Dogs, cats, and other pets do not spread human lice.

Signs and symptoms of lice include:

  • Intense itching
  • Tickling feeling from movement of hair
  • Lice on your scalp or other body hair, body or clothing
  • Nits on hair shafts. They can be mistaken for dandruff, but unlike dandruff, they can’t be easily brushed out of hair.
  • Small, red bumps on the scalp, neck and shoulders

Usually, you can get rid of lice by taking self-care steps that include using nonprescription shampoo that’s specifically formulated to kill lice.

“See your health care provider if a nonprescription shampoo doesn’t kill the lice — you may need a stronger, prescription shampoo or if you have any infected hives or skin abrasions from scratching,” says Sharon Wilkerson, Ph.D., RN, dean of the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing. “The whole family may need to be treated, but pregnant women should talk to their health care provider before using any anti-lice shampoo.”

Lice can live for one to two days off the body, and eggs hatch in about one week. For that reason, items that cannot be washed will need to be placed in a closed plastic bag for about a week, Dr. Wilkerson says.

— Blair Williamson