Coping with the Creepy-Crawlies: Lice, Scabies and Bedbugs

Posted on September 21st, 2016

18338340Kids come home from school with wonderful things—amazing artwork, challenging homework, new ideas and funny stories. Sometimes, though, kids bring home bugs. Not the germs and viruses we’re normally blogging about at Vax Maine Kids, but BUGS. If your family is dealing with head lice, scabies or bedbugs this school year, you’re not alone—and we’ve got some great advice on what you should do!

First of all, don’t panic. We know it’s hard. We’ve been there! But head lice, scabies and bedbugs are a common occurrence in Maine and around the U.S. A case of head lice doesn’t mean your children aren’t clean and an outbreak of bedbugs doesn’t mean your house is a mess. These creepy-crawlies are widespread and they spread very easily, especially among children in close quarters like daycares, classrooms and dormitories.

By far the most likely bug to come home from school, head lice are 2-3mm long bugs who use their claws to cling to strands of human hair, where they lay their eggs (called nits) that hatch into young lice, called nymphs. Between six million and twelve million children between the ages of three and eleven years old will have a case of head lice this year, and Maine schools are experiencing frequent and recurring outbreaks. If you notice your child scratching their head or neck frequently or becoming irritable and having trouble sleeping (lice are more active at night) they might have head lice.

If your child has lice, try not to make a big deal out of it. They haven’t done anything wrong and neither have you! If you seem to think it’s dirty or gross, your child may feel ashamed. They might also avoid or tease other children in their class with lice.

  • My child has head lice. What should I do?
    There are many over the counter lice-killing shampoos on the market, and that is a good first place to start. Children as young as two months can be treated for head lice, but make sure the treatment you purchase is approved for your child’s age. It may take a few days after treatment for the itching and irritation to subside.

    Head lice in Maine are becoming more resistant to medicated shampoos. If your child’s case appears more stubborn, talk to your healthcare provider about stronger treatments they can prescribe.

    Medicated treatments should kill the living lice, but will not necessarily kill all the eggs. Using a regular fine-tooth comb and water, remove all the eggs you see. They will be close to your child’s scalp and be light brown, tan or white, and you will need good light to see them. A thorough comb-out and nit-picking session can take time for children with thick or long hair, so ask your child to read a favorite book or do another quiet activity while you comb.

    You may need to apply a second treatment a week or so after the first to make sure all the lice and nits have been killed. Check the instructions on your medicated treatment or talk to your child’s healthcare provider.

  • How can I prevent my child from getting head lice?
    Lice can’t fly or jump, and they can’t infest animals. They crawl from human to human through close, head-to-head contact. Wash your child’s bedding, hats and scarves and bath towels in hot and soapy water, and avoid head-to-head contact at home until your child has been treated. Remind your child not to share clothing (especially hats), combs or brushes, and to avoid head-to-head contact at school. Although some schools and daycares have policies that require kids to stay home until all lice and nits are gone, exclusion from school after treatment isn’t necessary or recommended.

Scabies are small little mites that love to live on human skin. Scabies can happen to anyone, and they are much more common in crowded settings like classrooms or summer camp environments. Transmission requires prolonged skin-to-skin contact. If mites have made their home on your child’s skin, you will notice a dry, itchy, red and bumpy rash four to six weeks later. You might also see thin pale lines (usually along the folds of skin) where the mites have been burrowing in. If you suspect your child has scabies, make an appointment with his or her provider.

  • My child has scabies. What should I do?
    Scabies will not go away on their own and there are no effective over-the-counter treatments. You need to talk to your child’s healthcare provider. The most common treatment for scabies is a cream that must be applied everywhere the mites are living. Most creams are left on overnight. And this is the one time you’ll tell your kids NOT to wash their hands—fingernails are favorites for mites. If the directions call for it, keep that cream on!

    Your child’s provider may also prescribe medication for your child to take internally. No matter what kind of treatment you are given, it is normal for itching and irritation to continue for another couple of weeks.

    Your provider will probably want everyone else in your family to be treated at the same time. Follow your provider’s instructions. Then wash all clothing, bedding and towels used in the past 3 days in hot and soapy water, give the house a good vacuuming, and put your child’s favorite stuffed toys and pillows in plastic bags for three days. Scabies mites can’t live longer than that without a human host. 

  • How can I prevent my child from getting scabies?
    Scabies spread through skin-to-skin contact with someone else who has them. Let your child’s school or camp nurse or daycare director know about the scabies so they can encourage other parents to check and treat their kids. Once your child has been treated, he or she can return to school.

You’ve no doubt told your children to “sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite!” But if they do, stay calm and reassuring. Bedbugs have made a big resurgence in Maine and they are sneaky, hardy travelers. Once a bedbug has hitched a ride, these small, brown bugs hide themselves in dark, hard-to-reach places like mattresses, crooks and crannies in furniture, or cracks in walls or between floorboards. They only come out at night, and like mosquitos, they feed on human blood. If your child develops a series of little itchy red bumps (usually in a line), or if you see small, dark spots on your child’s sheets (stains from bug droppings) you might have bedbugs.

  • My child has bedbug bites. What should I do?
    Wash the bite with mild soap and water and apply calamine lotion to stop itching. You don’t want your child scratching the bite and causing infections. Bites should clear up after one or two weeks.

    There are many different ways to treat a bedbug infestation, from regular cleaning to chemical treatments to hiring a professional pest management firm. The Environmental Protection Agency has great information about your options and how to evaluate them. The Maine CDC also has some good local resources and information.

  • How can I prevent my child from getting bedbugs?
    If you live in an apartment, bedbugs can travel through walls to other spaces. Your child may have picked up a bedbug at school, or anyone in your family may have picked one up in a movie theater or during a recent stay in a hotel. Avoid picking up secondhand furniture or clothing (especially anything left for free on the side of the road!), keep suitcases and belongings off floors and beds when you travel, clean your home frequently and wash clothing and personal belongings regularly. If there is an infestation at your child’s school or dormitory, follow the school’s instructions carefully.

By now, you’re probably itchy just thinking about these bugs. Hopefully you will be able to escape the creepy-crawlies, but if not, now you’ll know where to turn for help! You can find a lot more great information about kids and head lice, kids and scabies and family bedbug strategies at

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