What is true about how you can catch head lice

Here at the Lancashire Lice Clinic we often get asked about how you catch lice. In fact there are more ways you can’t catch them. So many misconceptions exist about them. Here are some of the ways you are very unlikely to catch head lice.

Standing next to someone with lice

Despite what most of us think, lice can’t jump—they do not have the ability to leap from person to person unless the heads of those individuals are touching. Lice just are not designed to hop and jump. They can run pretty fast.

“When direct head-to-head contact with an infected person occurs, however, one is exposed to lice,” says Krista Lauer, MD, Medical Director at Lice Clinics of America. “This direct contact provides the opportunity for head lice to move from one person to another.” This, she explains, is how almost all head lice infestations happen.

Poor Hygiene.

Head lice are attracted to, and live off , human blood, they are not interested in grease, dirt or dandruff, anyone with hair is at risk, not just those who haven’t showered in a few days.

People with greasy hair make it more difficult for the lice to lay eggs on the hair, therefore, dirty hair is actually a deterrent but its not to be relied on. Squeaky clean hair is a more favorable condition for lice to lay eggs, using products with smells they don’t like can help prevent them.

A person with dirty hair or poor hygiene may be less likely to check for lice, which could lead to the discovery of a greater infestation once lice are found. Long lasting infestations are harder to clear.

At parties and play rooms or on school transport

While it’s alarming to hear that one of your child’s schoolmates has lice, there’s no reason to keep them home for several days at a time—or even a single day. So long as the infected child is being treated, there’s no concern at all surrounding the concept that the lice can live in the classroom or playroom. Lice are parasitic bugs that live on the scalp, which means when they’re away from a blood supply, they die quickly.

Although they can survive between 24-36 hours off the hair, once away from a blood source they have difficulty crawling due to weakness and the structure of their claws, they are designed to cling to hair. Its more likely they will simply fall onto the floor.

In your bed

Yes, even the thing you rest your head on for seven to nine hours each night doesn’t require much attention if you or someone you sleep with happens to have been infested with lice. While it is possible to get lice from sharing a bed and pillow with a person who has head lice, this is the result of direct head-to-head contact, not because head lice are able to live on sheets and pillows, explains Dr. Lauer. “While it is not unreasonable to launder sheets and pillowcases, it is very unlikely that a person would become infested this way.”

We generally tell people to wash their bed linen just to be 100% certain results are once and for all

On soft toys

There’s no reason to throw out your little one’s favorite stuffed toy because your child had lice—again, they cannot live off the head longer than 24 to 36 hours. “They need to feed every few hours and need the temperature and humidity of the human scalp,” says Dr. Lauer. “Off the head, head lice dehydrate and weaken rapidly and, within hours, they are unable to crawl.”

A simple way to make 100% sure is to wash the toy in the washing machine or pop it into a bag for 24 hours.

On airplane seats

Recently, there have been several reports of families denied boarding or being removed from airplanes due to the fact that their child is suspected to have lice. Not only is this embarrassing, but according to Dr. Lauer, it’s completely unnecessary. “Head lice are adapted to live on the human head, close to the scalp, where they feed regularly, meaning they cannot live off the human head for long periods of time,” she says. “As a result, a louse will not leave the human head willingly, unless it is to crawl directly onto another head—and they cannot hold onto the fabric or leather of an airplane seat.” For these reasons, she says it is virtually impossible for someone to become infested by sitting in a seat previously occupied by a person with head lice.

One of the common reasons for treatment in our clinic recently has been parents taking children on flights worried that someone will see they have lice and that will be so embarrassing.

In the swimming pool

Surprisingly, lice can survive in water: Karen at the Lancashire Lice Clinic explains that they shut down their spiracles (respiratory openings) in order to survive in water. However, they can’t swim. “Water puts them in survival mode but does not provide the proper conditions for head lice to spread,” she says. “Once hair is wet, it’s difficult for lice to crawl they are not designed to move in wet hair so it hinders them.

On clothes

Given the short lifespan of lice with no host, they’re usually dead or dying by the time someone else puts on infested clothing. “Head lice are often confused with body lice, which can live longer in clothing or bedding,” says Karen. “Humans have three types of lice—head lice, crab lice, and body lice—which only exist in their respective places on the body, never anywhere else.”

Catch head lice swimming