It is the four-letter word that can spark fear and panic in parents.

"Lice seems to be parents' biggest nightmare," says Risa Bar, creator of the Fairy Tales Rosemary Repel line of anti-lice shampoos. "When they hear another kid has lice, even if their own child doesn't show any sign of them, they're ready to put a bunch of chemicals on their head. Just take a deep breath. It's not the worst thing that can happen."

Knowledge can go a long way toward preventing and treating lice, as well as the other conditions that can cause your child's scalp to itch and flake, such as cradle cap, dandruff and eczema.

The chances are high that you will get a letter from your child's school or camp at least once to inform you that another child in the class has lice. Head lice is one of the most common - and most dreaded - issues for young children and their parents.

Lice spread from one child's head to the other through contact with an infested person's clothing, brushes or other belongings. Discourage your child from sharing combs, brushes, towels or hats with friends.

Children with lice may have an itchy scalp, and may feel a sensation like something is moving in their hair. They may also have red sores on their scalp caused by scratching.

Remember that head lice is not a reflection on your child's hygiene. In fact you should make sure not to wash your child's hair everyday.

"Lice like clean hair, not dirty hair," Bar says. "It's easier for them to attach to a clean hair shaft."

Lice make their home in human hair, nourishing themselves with blood from the scalp, holding onto the hair with hook-like claws found oat the end of their six legs. The average number of lice on a child's head is about 10.

When looking for lice, focus on your child's "hot spots" - the part line, the top of the head, the hairline, behind the ears and the back of the neck. They usually reside within a quarter inch of the hair shaft. Adult lice are light brown and the size of a pin head. Also look for the eggs - or 'nits' - which look like tiny white dots.

If you find them, there are several options, says Cozy Friedman of Cozy's Cuts for Kids in New York, which just came out with its Boo! line of lice products.

Some believe chemical removal is best, using popular lice shampoos such as Rid or Nix.

But chemicals aren't the only, or necessarily the desirable, solution. They actually contain the same harsh chemicals found in products like Raid Yard Guard and Black Flag Flea Ender. There is evidence that permethrin and pyrethrin, found in Nix and Rid, can trigger asthma and other respiratory problems. Some of the prescription lice products contain strong chemicals like Malathion, a harmful neurotoxin, and Lindane, a carcinogen that has been banned in California.

"It's like spraying a pesticide on your child's bed or car seat," says Jim Rompel, president of Safe Effective Alternatives, which developed the popular Lice B Gone pesticide-free lice treatment seven years ago.

Rompel discovered that the number of children with head lice in America had risen to over 12 million cases, and growing every year. A big part of this rise was because head lice had developed a resistance to the pesticides (pyrethrin/permethrin) that have been used for the last 15 years in head lice shampoos. Scientists at the Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre in Cardiff, UK discovered four out of five lice were resistant to the chemicals. And many are ineffective against the eggs, which is why it can be so difficult to get rid of lice.

With four children of his own, Rompel wondered why anyone would intentionally pour pesticides on their child's head if they knew they could solve them without them. Using his 25 years of experience in sales, marketing and distribution of health-related products, he developed Lice B Gone and launched it in 1999. He made it in an ice cooler and sold it out of the back of a van.

"I wanted to help people fight the problem without harming their children or harming the planet," Rompel says.

Lice B Gone is an pesticide-free, enzyme-based treatment that dissolves the lice's exoskeletons and softens the glue that nits use to attach to the hair shaft. It is sprayed on the hair, left on for 15 minutes and then combed out with a nit comb.

It is one of several natural solutions to prevent and eliminate lice. They contain such natural ingredients as eucalyptus, sandalwood citronella oil, tea tree oil, lavender, rosemary and geranium oil. Lice don't like the smell of these ingredients. There is documentation dating back hundreds of years of rosemary being used to cure lice.

Fairy Tales makes Lice Goodbye, a yeast enzyme that dissolves the glue that the nits use to stick to the hair. Quit Nits by Wild Child is an Australian product that contains eucalyptus, lavender and geranium oils as well as wildflower essences to kill head lice and make it easier to remove the nits.

"It's safe, effective and cheap," Rompel says of his product, which is recommended by the American Journal of Nursing.

As a preventative measure, comb your child's hair with a fine-tooth comb after shampooing to lift out the lice and nits. Last year a study found those who fine-combed their wet hair were four times more likely to remove head lice than those relying on products bought at the pharmacy.

Also try using some of these natural products on a regular basis as a preventative measure. The Fairy Tale line has four Rosemary Repel products that can be help keep lice away. Lorraine Massey of Devacurl recommends using a lavender spray such as her Mist-er Right as a lice repellent. Rompel recommends parents use a product like Lice B Gone before school starts.

Mayonnaise and Vaseline also have been effectively used to kill lice. Grab a handful of mayonnaise or Vaseline and cover all of your child's hair with it. Then cover it with a plastic shower cap to keep the mayonnaise from dripping. Leave it on for two hours to smother the lice and eggs. Then shampoo the hair thoroughly. It may take baby oil or dish soap to remove the Vaseline. Olive oil and coconut oil are also good weapons in the war on lice because they dissolve the lice's exoskeletons.

After shampooing, rinse the hair and scalp with vinegar, which loosens the glue that holds the nit onto the hair shaft. Rinse with hot - not scalding! - water. After you're done, check your child's hair under good lighting to make sure the nits are gone. If you see a few more, use a vinegar wrap to further loosen the glue. Thoroughly wet a towel with a mixture of half vinegar and half water, wrap the child's head with a towel and leave it on for an hour.

Check the hair daily for any missed nits. If one living nit remains, it could hatch and start the whole process all over again, bringing about eight new eggs per day. Every person in the house will also need to be checked. Also inform the parents of kids who your child has been in contact with, as well as the school.

Another common culprit when it comes to an itchy scalp is dandruff. Dandruff is a persistent scalp condition in which the skin cells on the head shed excessively. It may be accompanied by redness and itching. To treat, shampoo with a doctor-approved shampoo. Dandruff responds to more frequent shampooing or a longer period of lather. Rub the shampoo into the hair thoroughly, leaving the lather on several minutes before rinsing and then repeat.

A product like Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Special Shampoo or AG Hair Cosmetics Stimulating Balm also works well with dry, itchy scalp by refreshing and moisturizing the scalp with ingredients like tea tree oil, peppermint, lemongrass, menthol and aloe.

"As with any shampoo or conditioner, just be sure not to get it in your child's eyes," says Tatiana Jovic, spokeswoman for AG Hair Cosmetics.

It is not a serious illness, but if the dandruff persists or if the scalp becomes inflamed, see a dermatologist. It may require a prescription shampoo.

In some cases, dandruff may not actually be dandruff at all. Product buildup, which can cause itching and flakes, can be confused with dandruff.

"Sometimes kids aren't as patient and may not rinse out their conditioner all the way," says Christo of curl salon Christo Fifth Avenue, creator of the Curlisto Kids line of products. "They think the flakes are dandruff, but it's not."

Childhood eczema is another very common condition, affecting approximately 10 percent of infants and children. It can start as early as two months of age.

Eczema has two distinct components -- dry, easily irritated skin and allergies. When a child with eczema is exposed to allergens, the skin overreacts and breaks out in a rash. Common culprits include laundry soap, fabric softener and bath soap.

Moisturizing is crucial to avoid dry skin. Apply moisturizing lotion or cream all over your child's body, two to four times a day, paying extra attention to the affected areas. Many brands are formulated specifically for eczema. Select a thick, non-watery cream for better protection. Natural ingredients such as shea butter, pure lanolin, calendula cream and tea tree oil are recommended to treat eczema-type irritations. Honey B.U.N.S., a line of non-synthetic products for babies, makes an all-natural product called Honey Butter Cream, containing shea butter, cocoa butter and sweet almond butter, to combat eczema.

Give your baby lukewarm baths, and avoid adding soap. Hot and soapy water can make eczema worse, while lukewarm baths allow water to soak into the skin, moisturizing it in the process. If you need to use soap, a soap-free cleanser such as Cetaphil is recommended.

For serious flare-ups, it's best to see a dermatologist who may prescribe a strong cortisone cream. Stop using the cream once the rash subsides.

Cradle cap -- also known as seborrhoeic eczema -- is a common condition for babies, usually appearing in the first few weeks after birth. It is a harmless and temporary condition characterized by yellow, greasy, scaly patches on the skin of the scalp. The same rash often is prominent around the ear or the eyebrows. Its cause is unknown.

There are several ways to treat cradle cap. Some suggest rubbing olive oil or jojoba into the baby's scalp before bed. Comb the hair with a fine-toothed comb in the morning. When the scales have been removed, wash the baby's hair with a mild shampoo. Bar also suggests rubbing a tear-free conditioning shampoo into the scalp, using a baby toothbrush to help melt away the flakes.

Cradle cap usually is gone by eight to 12 months, and often long before that.

As with any condition, see a pediatrician or dermatologist if it persists.

Natural Lice products

Fairy Tales Rosemary Repel Shampoo

Fairy Tales Rosemary Repel Creme Conditioner

Fairy Tales Rosemary Repel Styling Gel

Fairy Tales Rosemary Repel Leave-in Conditioning Spray

Devacurl Mist-er Right

So Cozy Boo! Shampoo

So Cozy Boo! Leave-in Spray Conditioner

Lice B Gone

Rosemary essential oil

Lavender essential oil

Wild Child Quit Nits Treatment

Wild Child Quit Nits Preventative

Wild Child Head Lice Control Styling Mud

Nitmix Wet Combing Aid

Nitmix Ultra Fine Comb

Pure Nitmix Daily Spray

Lice Arrest

Facts About Lice

Head lice (pediculus humanus capitis)

1. Lice are about the size of a sesame seed and are light brown in color.

2. Lice do not jump or fly.

3. Head lice has nothing to do with cleanliness. In fact, lice prefer clean, healthy heads.

4. Lice usually are transmitted by direct head to head contact with an infested person or their belongings.

5. The most common symptom of head lice infestation is persistent itching, particularly around the ears, back of the neck and crown.

6. Head lice can live off a human head for up to 48 hours and live on a head for approximately 30 days.

7. Nits are tiny white to light gray colored eggs that attach to one side of the hair shaft and do not come off easily. That is how you know the difference between nits, dandruff or dried gel.

8. Lice are most common in children five to 12 years old because of their play habits.

9. It takes seven to 10 days for a nit to hatch, and another seven to 10 days for the female to begin laying her own eggs.

10. Whatever technique you choose, you will most certainly need to manually remove nits by combing.

11. Make sure you wash everything that has come into contact with your child - pillowcases, sheets, towels, brushes, etc.

12. Off their human host, head lice will starve.

Sources: and

For more information about lice, check out this FAQ from the Harvard School of Public Health.