Lice are tiny parasites that live on the body or in clothing and cause skin inflammation (redness, itching, swelling) called pediculosis. The three types are head lice, body lice, and pubic (crab) lice. Head lice are most common in children. About 6 to 12 million cases per year occur in the United States.
Lice live on the head, eyebrows, eyelashes, facial hair, pubic hair, and the back of the neck. Lice eggs, called nits, are white and are easier to see than the small gray lice. Sharing a brush, comb, or hat with someone who is infected spreads lice. They can also spread by close person-to-person contact. Pubic lice spread by sexual contact.
Symptoms usually go away within a few days of treatment. They include an itchy scalp (worse at night), a moving feeling in the hair, rash and sores on the scalp, and nits on the scalp and eyebrows.
The health care provider will take a medical history and do an examination, with special attention to the scalp and using a magnifying glass. The health care provider may also use a special light called a Wood’s lamp to see nits.
Lice are treated with medicated creams, lotions, or shampoos applied to affected body parts. Some of these include permethrin (Nix®, Elimite®), applied once; pyrethrins (Rid®, R and C®, A-200®), reapplied in 7 days; and lindane (Kwell®, by prescription), reapplied in 7 days. Resistance to permethrin is now widespread, and in some cases your health care provider may recommend stronger medications.
Lice can also be removed with a special comb and by pulling out lice or nits that are left with fingers or tweezers. A magnifying glass helps show the nits and lice. Eyelashes should be checked for lice and nits.
Side effects of treatments include skin irritation or body absorption of the medicine. These usually occur when medicine is applied more often than recommended. Keep all preparations out of the eyes and out of the reach of children.
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