Lice

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Author: 
Adoptive Families Association of BC
Source: 
AFABC Special Needs Database
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Definition
Lice (plural) or louse (singular) are tiny parasitic insects. There are three different kinds, head lice, body lice, and pubic lice. They exist on the surface of the skin clinging to hair strands or fibres. Lice, like mosquitoes, often carry diseases and can transmit them to the host’s body.

Causes
Lice are spread through direct contact with the insect. The louse insect is fairly active and moves from host to host willingly. Head lice can be spread through shared hats or combs, body lice can be transmitted through clothing, and pubic lice can be spread through sexual intimacy.

Characteristics
Lice lay eggs, called nits, on the scalp, skin, clothing, or pubic hair of an individual’s body. The nits attach themselves to the hair strand or clothing fibre and are difficult to dislodge. They hatch within two weeks and cause an allergic reaction as they feed on human blood. 

Signs of infestation:

  • itchy scalp or skin
  • smooth, white, oval shaped nits attached to hair or found in clothing
  • presence of louse insects (sometimes tough to spot)

Head Lice
This type of lice is present on the scalp and in the hair of the individual and it can also be found less commonly in the eyebrows and eyelashes. The nits are firmly attached to the hair shaft. This type of lice is most commonly found in school children as they come into contact with each other regularly when playing and studying. Also once one person in the family has caught lice, it can spread easily and quickly to the other members.

Body Lice
This type of lice lives on the body hair and clothing of a human. It is usually found in areas where clothing sits close to the body, across the shoulders, the waist, and buttocks of a human. Body lice appears physically similar to head lice but feeds less frequently. 

Pubic Lice
This type of lice is also known as crab lice. Most commonly it inhabits the pubic hair of the human body and causes small red sores along with itching by its bites. In some cases this type of lice has been known to move to other areas of the body characterized by coarse hair, such as the chest or underarms. Its physical appearance is very distinct from that of head or body lice.  

Treatment
Lice can be treated using pesticide shampoos and creams. However, some lice are resistant to these chemicals and there is some concern about the effect of pesticides on the human body. Some alternative treatments include tea tree oil or olive oil. Lice are tenaciously tricky to get rid of and the insects can live on bedding, clothing, and pillows for a short period of time so it is necessary to deal with the lice on them to avoid re-infestation. High heat, as in the dryer, or low temperatures, as in the freezer, can kill the lice on these items.

Complications
There is often confusion surrounding the topic of lice, which makes diagnosis and treatment more difficult. For example, head lice can sometimes be mistaken for dandruff as the nits resemble white skin cells; however, nits are firmly attached to the hair strand and dandruff usually flakes off easily. Also scabies is sometimes referred to as body lice. This is inaccurate as the organisms are very different, but it can cause some confusion for people seeking treatment. 

In addition, lice can lead to other infections or diseases. Like mosquitoes, lice can carry disease. As they feed on human blood they can transmit the diseases to the host. Also because the bites are itchy, scratching can break the skin allowing bacteria and infection to enter the body.