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Head Lice Can't Hop -- They Ride Hat Taxis

Chances are, you've either had head lice or know someone who has. But what are they, and how do people get them?

"Head lice are one of three types of lice that feed on human blood," said Miranda Brooks, a Pickens County senior 4-H'er. "The insect lives its entire life cycle on the heads of humans."

Brooks was a state 4-H winner this year for her project on head lice. She studied the insect pest and worked to educate her community on ways to control them.

Her efforts included volunteering to help with head checks in her local primary school, writing an article for her local newspaper, presenting a program to the PTA and creating displays for use in schools and the public library.

What They Look Like

Head lice are flat, have no wings and are about an eighth of an inch long.

"They're about the size of a sesame seed," Brooks said. "They're almost clear when they hatch and dirty-white to brownish-black when they mature. Their color changes as they feed on blood."

How They Travel

If they have no wings and don't jump, how do head lice travel from head to head?

"Many times lice are spread by head-to-head contact," Brooks said. "That's why outbreaks are more common in lower elementary grades where children are more likely to hug a friend, touch his hair or wrestle on the floor."

Lice also travel from person to person on brushes, combs, hair clips, caps, hats, scarves and jackets. Sports helmets and headsets used for computers and music equipment are also a means of transferring lice.

"Cold weather brings on the spread of lice due to caps, hats and scarves being piled together in school coat closets," Brooks said. "The lice can crawl from garment to garment and eventually up onto the neck and into the hair of a new host."

Who Gets Them and Who Doesn't

Lice are rarely found on the heads of African-American children and adults. "Researchers have always known that for some reason, black children were not infested with the type of head lice most commonly found in America," Brooks said. "But head lice do infest blacks in Africa."

The American head louse has a claw adapted to clinging to the round hair shafts of Caucasians.

Itching and scratching are the first signs of lice infestation.

"If you suspect you have head lice, have someone check your head for signs," Brooks said. "The lice are tiny, shy away from light and move quickly. So it's much easier to check for nits, which are lice eggs. Nits are normally found around the nape of the neck, behind the ears and at the crown of the head."

What Do Nits Look Like?

Nits appear as tiny, silvery specks attached to the hair shaft. They may appear to be flakes of dandruff, but they don't flake off easily. Sometimes debris or hair oil is mistaken for a nit. If the spot moves easily up and down the hair shaft, it's not a nit.

Once you have determined you have head lice, treat your hair with lice removal treatment. Follow label instructions.

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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