Everything you need to know about headlice

Why is it that we can send a rocket into space, talk to someone in New Zealand via mobile phone, find cures for major illnesses and perform ground- breaking surgery but still can't find a cure to eradicate the dreadful mini-pests that target children’s heads? What is it about these bloodsucking beastly head lice and nits that make them so hard to get rid of? They may live for a mere three weeks, but the dreaded lice are certainly something we busy parents could do without; they seem so resistant, and sometimes so persistent.  So, what can we do to reduce the chance of our children catching the beastly things in the first place, and what can we do to get rid of them?

 

What are Head Lice?

The Head Louse (Pediculus capitis) is a wingless insect that lives on the scalp and neck. Collectively known as Head Lice, they are browny-grey in colour, have six legs, each with a claw on the end, and are about 2 mm long when fully grown. At any one time there can be up to 12 adult head lice on an infested scalp. As lice are parasites, they feed on small amounts of blood and need to be next to skin to survive.

 

How long do Head Lice live for?

The female louse can lay up to six eggs a day. These eggs are also known as nits and are ‘glued’ to pieces of hair, close to the warmth and shelter of the scalp. Coloured yellow-white, these oval blobs stick to the hair and usually hatch after 7 to 10 days. Once these nits hatch, the new lice come out. Lice take between 6 to14 days to become fully grown. After this, they are capable of reproduction.

 

How will I know if my child has head lice?

Head lice cannot fly, jump or swim, but spread by climbing from head to head. Anyone with hair can catch them, but primary school aged children seem to be most commonly affected. About 80% of head lice infections are amongst children aged 4-16 years.

The most common sign of infestation is when you see your child scratching his or her head on a more regular basis than usual. Head lice infestation can cause an itchy head or a rash, which is often worse in the warm areas found behind the ears or at the nape of the neck.  It’s important to check anyone who has been in contact with someone with confirmed head lice.

 

How do I spot head lice?

Head lice are easier to detect on wet hair. The best places to look are behind the ears and at the nape of the neck. If you can’t easily spot the lice, then comb your child's hair using a special ‘nit comb’ or a fine-toothed version that is available from most chemists. Use conditioner, then comb through the entire length of the hair from root to tip. After each stroke, check the comb for lice. You may also wish to comb the hair over a white piece of paper for easy identification.

 

How do I treat head lice?

There are a number of treatments available:

 

Insecticides

Insecticides are available in shampoos, lotions, mousses, liquids or cream rinses and should only be used if a live louse has been detected. Liquids or cream rinses are water-based and are most recommended for young children and for people who get asthma or eczema. The treatment involves rubbing the insecticide solution onto the scalp and hair, then leaving it for a minimum of 12 hours before washing out. It’s worth noting that this will kill the living lice, but may not kill the eggs. The treatment should be repeated a week later to destroy any newly hatched lice.

 

Nit combing or bug busting

This is the traditional method of removing lice, with the regular use of a fine-toothed comb. Using the same procedure as that used for detecting lice (as described above) the combing should continue over the whole head for at least 30 minutes. This procedure should be repeated four times over two weeks. Success is dependent on the motivation of families who are thorough and who follow the procedure carefully. A "bug-busting" kit is produced by the Community Hygiene Concern charity. It contains four specially-designed combs and detailed instructions. This treatment method requires four sessions of special nit-combing over two weeks. The advantages of this method are that it avoids the use of strong chemicals, and lice cannot become resistant to it. It can also be used for routinely checking the hair for infection.

 

Alternative treatments

Tea Tree Oil: There are alternative treatments available that some people find helpful such as those containing essential oils (including tea-tree), herbal extracts or homeopathic remedies.

 

Electronic combs: are battery powered, fine-tooth combs.  They work by electrocuting the lice as the hair is being combed using a minute electric current running through the teeth. Despite the drastic-sounding method of eradicating lice, they are safe to use on children.  

 

Finally, how can I prevent my child from catching head lice again?

There’s no simple solution. The best way to prevent head lice spreading is to check your child’s head regularly. If diagnosis is confirmed, treat the lice as soon as possible. To avoid re-infestation it’s important to let your child’s school, friends and other family members know if your child has head lice.

 

Further information

NHS Direct

Tel: 0845 4647

Web: www.nhs.uk/Livewell/childhealth6-15/Pages/Nits

 

Community Hygiene Concern

Tel: 01908 561928

Email: bugbusters2k@yahoo.co.uk

Web: www.chc.org/bugbusting

 

Pencil in your diaries…

Arranged by the bug busting charity, Community Hygiene Concern, the next National Bug Busting Day will take place on 31 October 2009. Find out more by visiting www.chc.org

Kirsty Woodgate

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