Every fall, parents nationwide go into panic mode when the first head lice outbreak of the school year happens—and who can blame them? These icky parasites camp out on the scalp and feast on blood until you can manage to get rid of them, which is notoriously difficult. An estimated 6 to 12 million infestations occur annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The silver lining? Lice aren't nearly as bad as you may believe. “They’re not dangerous in the least,” says Seth Orlow, MD, a pediatric dermatologist at NYU’s Langone Medical Center. “They just give us the heebie jeebies.” (And they itch like hell, too.) Here, Dr. Orlow sets straight 10 common myths about these pesky creatures.
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Myth: Kids with poor hygiene are more likely to have lice
Fact: Cleanliness doesn’t play a factor in head lice risk. While the number of showers you take could correlate with your chances of having other types of lice, like body lice, head lice don’t discriminate based on how pretty your scalp looks. “The lice are interested in heat and food,” says Dr. Orlow. So long as you’re a living, blood-pumping human, you’re susceptible to an infestation.
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Myth: Lice are a major health hazard
Fact: Lice don’t carry disease the same way mosquitoes can carry Zika and West Nile, according to the CDC. “Practically speaking, it’s really more of an annoyance than it is a health hazard,” says Dr. Orlow. However, if the lice cause an itchy scalp you can’t help but scratch, the infestation could result in a secondary infection from the bacteria already present on your skin.
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Myth: Sharing a comb, brush, or hat can spread lice
Fact: Lice use their arms to tightly grab hold of human hairs, so it’s highly unlikely a brush or comb could rip the lice out of one person’s scalp and transport the creatures to another person’s head. Likewise, hats rarely spread lice from person to person. “The lice have no interest in leaving your head and they cling on pretty well,” explains Dr. Orlow. Head-to-head contact with a person who has lice is the most common way the parasites are spread. Still, the CDC recommends avoiding using combs and brushes that belong to a person who has lice. If your child comes home with lice, place her combs and brushes in water that’s at least 130 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes.
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Myth: Your cat or dog can give you lice
Fact: “There are certain creatures, like a deer tick, that will be on deer, mouse, or a human, but not head lice. They only like humans,” explains Dr. Orlow. Head lice crave nothing but human blood and a warm scalp, so you can rule out your pets when trying to figure out what caused you or you child to have a case of lice.
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Myth: You must remove all nits from the scalp and hair to be fully cured
Fact: You don't need to get rid of every last head intruder to be cured of lice. If you or your child has been treated for lice and a few hatched nits (lice eggs) remain on the scalp, there’s no need to get rid of them. “If you killed all of the lice and there are just empty nits glued to the hair shaft, they’ll grow out and fall off the head on their own,” he says. Not sure if the nits have hatched? White ones indicate they don’t contain lice, while black nits indicate they’ve haven’t hatched yet and need to be removed.
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Myth: You can rinse lice out of your hair with water
Fact: Lice can survive underwater for about six hours, says Dr. Orlow. Unless you’re some sort of superhuman who can hold your breath for that length of time, you’ll have to use another lice-killing method. Dr. Orlow says over-the-counter topical lice treatments containing pyrethroids (like Rid) are most common, but there’s one caveat: lice have evolved to resist this form of treatment. If you try a pyrethroid that doesn’t work, check out these 20 other head lice remedies, or ask your doctor to prescribe another topical treatment.
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Myth: You won't get lice if you have short hair
Fact: If you have hair, you can contract lice, no matter how long your locks may be. One catch, though: “Two people with very short hair have to put their heads much closer together than two people with long hair to have the hairs touch.” That means the likelihood of someone becoming infested could have to do with hair length, but even short-haired folks remain at risk.
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Myth: Sandboxes are a breeding ground for lice
Fact: Lice can only crawl from place to place, so the only way the critters could end up in the schoolyard sandbox is if you quite literally put your head and hair in the sand, says Dr. Orlow. Even if lice somehow get in the sand, they probably won’t stay alive long enough to crawl onto another person’s head. “They’ll die if they’re away from a head, warmth, and blood for more than a day or two,” says Dr. Orlow. The only way your child is getting lice in the sandbox is if they bump heads with another, lice-infested child while playing.
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Myth: Only kids get head lice
Fact: Lice see no difference between a child-sized and full-grown head. Dr. Orlow says his patients’ parents often think they’re immune to the parasites when, in reality, they’re prime hosts for an infestation. “After all, parents do have close contact with their children,” he says. “That’s why anytime someone in the house has lice, everyone should be examined.”
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Myth: Kids with lice should be sent home from school
Fact: The American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of School Nurses, and the CDC all agree that students diagnosed with head lice should stay in school through the end of the day. When they get home, they should start treatment, and then return to class the following morning. Head lice are a nuisance, for sure, but they have not been shown to spread disease.