It's a young child's rite of passage - the note from the teacher stating your little darling has head lice.

"But we're not a nasty family," you think.

Well, guess what? No one who knows about head lice believes you are.

You don't have to be a child or in school to attract the critters. Anytime hair with lice touches your hair, you can get them. You also can get them if you use a contaminated brush, comb, hat, barrette or scrunchie.

How to check for head lice

1. Don't rush. Find some good lighting and stand or sit above the person, looking down on the scalp.

2. Be psychologically ready. When I first started practice, I remember examining an elderly lady who was in for something else but said, "Oh, by the way, my scalp's been itching a lot lately." Confident I would find a red scalp from some sort of allergic reaction or maybe a bad case of dandruff, I was somewhat taken aback when I parted the perfectly permed gray hair and spotted a couple of bugs.

3. Be ready to squash the lice. Wear gloves if it makes you feel better, but they aren't going to hurt you.

4. Check for the nits (eggs). They're attached, really cemented, to hair strands. Sometimes nits are all you'll see. You'll usually find them within a quarter-inch of the scalp. They're tiny but noticeable. Dirt and dandruff can be confused for nits, but they brush off easily.

How to kill head lice

Prescription medicines are available from your doctor. Here are three other options:

- Shampoos that contain pyrethrin, such as Nix, can kill the lice and the eggs.

- Neem oil or shampoos containing it work OK, but you'll need to shampoo for 20 minutes and leave it on for an additional 10.

- A mayonnaise treatment will kill the lice but not necessarily all the nits. Slather it over the scalp, and seal it with a shower cap or some sort of plastic for 36 hours. After you've finished the treatment, wet the hair and pick out the nits with a fine-tooth comb.

Lice lay their eggs close to the scalp, so nits found farther than a half-inch from the scalp likely have hatched and are empty casings.

Repeat the treatment 7-9 days later to kill any lice hatched from nits that survived the first treatment.

How to prevent head lice

Treat everyone who's been in contact with the person who has lice. Also treat those who used the person's hair accessories or slept in the same bed within 48 hours of diagnosis.

Wash all potentially contaminated materials in water that's 130 degrees or hotter. If you can't do this, either throw away the materials or seal them in a plastic bag for two weeks. Lice and nits can't live away from the comfort and food (blood) of a good scalp for more than a few days.


Family doctor James Hubbard teaches how to survive during disasters or any time you can't get expert medical help at