No one likes to think about pesky bugs, much less have them in the home, but most families will become familiar with one or the other of these commonplace insects: lice, fleas, ticks or bedbugs, particularly in temperate climates like Southern California. Prevention and treatment for most are relatively simple, so stay calm and don’t fret about these “creepy crawlies.”
Tiny, wingless insects that live on a host, head lice feed on the human scalp and cause severe itching. Prevalent among kids, they crawl from one head to the next and are thus easily spread through close personal contact and by sharing belongings.
The adults look like sesame seeds, while the eggs or nits resemble pussy willow buds. Unlike dandruff flakes, lice cannot be brushed or rubbed off the hair. Parents may worry that having lice indicates poor hygiene, but cleanliness is not a factor.
“Lice is every parent’s rite of passage,” says Dr. Benke. “Kids like to hug their friends, and they play and touch heads when in the playground and on the equipment. You’re not going to stop that, and no person is not at risk for getting these little guys.”
If you suspect your child has lice, your doctor can confirm it. Treatment is an over-the-counter cream rinse or a stronger prescription from your pediatrician. After the cream rinse has soaked in, use a fine-tooth comb on each strand of hair to get the eggs off. You may need to repeat this treatment in a week to nine days to make sure none of the eggs have hatched.
Pull your child’s hair back in a ponytail or braid for school or playdates to prevent these uninvited pests and make sure to keep it positive with your children.
“You’re not going to keep your kids from playing with their friends, hugging or touching them,” says Dr. Benke. “When my kindergartner had lice, I told her she had a little bug. We killed it off, and there is nothing to worry about.”
Body lice are found in areas with poor hygiene and communal living.
Fleas are tiny dark parasites that feed on the blood and live on animals, including pets. They attach to your dog or cat when they go outside and infest their fur. While wingless, they can jump up to 2 feet and will bite people, leaving small, red, itchy bumps, often in groups of three or four.
Treat the animal to prevent fleas and avoid infestation in the home. Your local veterinarian can help.
Ticks are parasites that also live out in nature, often on wild animals, such as deer or rabbits. They can be found in bushy shrubs and tall grasses near hiking trails or in the backyard and transfer to humans when you brush up against foliage. They attach to the skin, bury their head and hang on for a few hours feeding on your blood. If not removed, they will fall off on their own eventually. Like when you have a mosquito bite, the area near the tick bite will be red and irritated.
Ticks can be a bit tricky to remove, as you want to be sure you get the head, as well as the body. You should use tweezers, or your physician can remove a tick easily in the office under a bright light.
“Ticks can cause two diseases that require a trip to the doctor for a course of antibiotics,” says Dr. Benke. Both Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease are easy to detect and exhibit similar symptoms of malaise, fever, body aches and rash.
The rash for Rocky Mountain spotted fever is usually on the wrists and ankles and spreads to the palms and soles. The rash caused by Lyme disease is target-like, red in center with a little clearing then red again in an outer ring. “Both of these diseases can be spotted easily by a doctor and respond well to antibiotics,” says Dr. Benke.
If you are concerned about ticks after hiking or being in the backyard, inspect the seams of your clothes and wash them in hot water.
“Washing clothing in hot water will kill any tick that happened to hitch a ride home with you,” says Dr. Benke.
Unlike fleas and ticks, bedbugs are a hazard that you may encounter when staying in hotels or other places with a high turnover of nighttime guests. These small, brown insects typically live in the seams on the edges of mattresses and bedsprings and can cause bites on whatever body part comes in contact with mattress. Usually, reputable establishments have a good housekeeping team that will take care of bedbugs.
One other pesky creature that is common in homes is the microscopic dust mite. According to Dr. Benke, practically every cushion, mattress and pillow will have dust mites after a period of time. If you think you have an allergy to dust mites, a hypoallergenic pillow or mattress cover may help improve your stuffy nose and sore throat. Washing sheets and pillowcases in hot water every one to two weeks will get rid of this creepy crawly from bedding.
“We live and co-exist with nature,” says Dr. Benke. “We enjoy living in San Diego, and we are going to be exposed to these little guys. Just by being aware, you’ll be safe. If you are worried about a bite or rash, see your doctor, and we can set your mind at ease.”