Head Lice 101: From spotting nits to debunking removal myths

Head lice cases spike at beginning of school year, expert says

By Jennifer Waugh - The Morning Show anchor, I-Team reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - As your kids settle back into their classroom routines, you need to be checking more than the schoolwork and teachers' notes they're bringing home. They may also be bringing home head lice.  

Mandy Ottesen, owner of Fresh Heads lice removal, said she sees more cases during the beginning of the school year because kids are now spending more time with their friends.

"Anyone can get lice," Ottesen said. "Parents should be checking their child's scalp every week.”

She said her customers always seem surprised that their child has head lice because they insist that their child is clean and showers regularly. 

"Lice love clean hair," she said. "It has nothing to do with anyone's socioeconomic background." 

Alyssa Ruth, 13, was shocked when she learned last month she had been infected with lice. A hairdresser made the discovery. 

"I thought it was dandruff, because most of the time it is, and then she showed me, and I'm like, 'Oh no. That's not good,'" Alyssa said. "I had no idea. I wasn't itching, and I am very clean.”

As it turns out, Alyssa had been infected weeks earlier and just didn't know. Ottesen said that is very common and is the reason lice spread so quickly. By the time someone realizes he or she is infected, they have probably already infected someone else.

How to spot a louse

A louse looks like a tiny brown or black bug. Just one can lay eight to 12 eggs or nits a day and lives for about 30 days. It multiplies fast. 

"When it lays an egg, it secretes a cement-like glue that adheres the egg to the hair shaft. It is really hard to remove," Ottesen said.

While some people may confuse a nit with dandruff, the biggest difference is color. A nit is brown, not white or yellow. 

"It looks more like a speck of dirt," Ottesen said.

She demonstrated the "fingernail” test on a piece of hair with a nit attached to explain how to be certain your child is infected with lice. 

"If you run your fingernail down the hair over the egg, you see you can't get it off the hair," Ottesen said. 

She said home remedies, like applying olive oil, mayonnaise and Vaseline to the eggs, typically do not work to rid the entire scalp of nits. 

"They just aren't thick enough to kill the eggs," she said. 

If just one egg is left on the scalp, reinfection will happen in a matter of days. 

Who is most likely to catch lice?

Young children, preschool to elementary aged, are the most frequent clients at Fresh Heads. 

"Young kids don't have the same personal boundaries as older kids, so they tend to hug more and get closer to one another," Ottesen said. 

Lice is spread from direct head-to-head contact. 

Ottesen said she has seen a spike in the number of teenage girls who visit her lice removal offices. She attributes the shift to the "selfie” phenomenon. 

"They'll spend 45 minutes taking selfies,” she said. “They lean in for pictures and their heads touch.”

How do head lice spread?

Lice cannot jump or fly, Ottesen said, "but they crawl very fast.”

It only takes a few seconds for a bug to crawl onto a head. 

She said your chances of catching lice by sharing a pillow or hat with someone who was infected are very rare.  

That's why you don't catch lice from airplane seats, couches or movie seats. 

"The bugs are smart. They've been around for thousands and thousands of years. They know where they can survive, and that is the human head,” Ottesen said. “So they would not choose to come off a human head for any reason because they get cold and dehydrated very quickly. They die. They can't live.”

Preventing head lice

Stopping the spread of lice is as simple as avoiding direct head-to-head contact. 

Girls with long hair should keep it pulled back at school, and remind them not to share brushes.

Encourage your children to sleep in opposite positions during sleepovers. 

"One child can sleep with their head at the head of the bed, the other sleeps with their head at the foot of the bed," suggested Ottesen. "It minimizes the chances of their heads touching.”

Removing head lice

Ottesen's business is the only one in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia that has the rights to a special machine that kills lice and eggs on contact. It's call the Airalle treatment. 

"It's an FDA cleared device. It uses warm dry air and it kills the eggs in a single treatment, which is huge. Nothing else can do that. The eggs are really hard to kill and that's where most people run into trouble trying to get rid of it," Ottesen said. 

The machine looks like a vacuum cleaner with a special attachment at the end. It does not burn the scalp and customers hardly feel anything when it touches the hair. 

Fresh Heads offers a 45-day guarantee. The Airalle treatment costs $159. A traditional comb out is $120. 

Ottesen also sells preventative hairsprays and shampoos that contain the kinds of essential oils that deter lice from attaching to the scalp.

Free back-to-school lice removal for educators

Fresh Heads is offering free lice removal treatment to all teachers and school administrators in our area as a thank you for their commitment to education. 

"They just need to show their school ID when they come in," she explained.  

Fresh Heads has offices in Bartram Trail, Jacksonville Beach, Orlando and one near Savannah, Georgia. All are participating in the free offer for educators. 

To contact the Jacksonville offices, call 904-549-6361 or go to freshheadsliceremoval.com for more information.

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