It can be a bit of a shock, the first time you hear that a case of head lice has been reported in your child’s class. Possibly worse is to find that your own child has them.
Most schools have a head lice policy. This will usually include alerting all parents in your child’s class that head lice have been found in a classmate’s hair. You should check your child’s head immediately, and again on a regular basis over the next three weeks using a special fine-toothed lice comb.
Checking with a lice comb is best done after wetting your child’s hair, preferably after adding a small amount of conditioner. There are also treatments available from the pharmacy, such as Paranix, which help with the combing.
Comb through small areas of hair, in both directions. After each pass of the comb through the hair, wipe the comb on a tissue and check the tissue for lice or eggs. It may help to have a strong magnifying glass, and to use a bright light, as the lice can be quite pale in colour, and the eggs are quite small.
Comb the hair until you are satisfied that if there is an infestation you’ve found it and removed it. It may well take 10 minutes or more.
What are head lice?
Head lice are very small pale wingless insects that live on the human scalp and in the hair. They will infest any kind of hair, long or short, clean or dirty, during close contact between children such as during play. Lice do not communicate disease, or do any harm to the child, but the itching can be uncomfortable.
Infestation is common among children from three to eleven years of age, with girls being infested more than twice as often as boys. Keeping long hair tied back will limit the amount of hair-to-hair contact, so reducing the likelihood of infestation.
Head lice are unable to crawl, jump, fly or swim. They like to stay in their normal habitat, hair and scalp, and are are mainly acquired by direct head-to-head contact with an infested person’s hair, such as during play, study or sport.
Occasionally lice can be transferred with shared combs, hats, hair grips etc, but they can live only for 1-2 days away from a human host. If you do find any on such items, they are probably already dead or dying.
How do I detect them?
The first signs are usually an unusual itching, or even a sensation of something moving in the hair. There may also be an itchy reaction to the bites of the scalp, which in turn in extreme cases can cause sores as a result of scratching, which can become infected.
What are the head lice facts?
Head lice is an infestation of head lice (“pediculus capitus”) that can occur on the hair, eyebrows and eyelashes.
Nits: Nits are the eggs of head lice. Nits are laid by the adult female, at the base of the hair shaft usually around 6mm from the scalp. They measure 0.8 mm by 0.3 mm, are oval in shape, and usually coloured yellow to white. Nits hatch in about a week. Any nits located further away from the scalp are likely to be empty shells.
Nymphs: The nit egg hatches a nymph. The nit shell then becomes easier to see, as it becomes a dull yellow, and remains attached to the hair shaft. The nymph looks like an adult head louse, but is smaller; about the size of a pinhead. Nymphs mature into adults about a week after hatching.
Adults: The adult louse is about the size of a sesame seed, is brown to grey or even white, and has six legs with claws. In children with dark hair, the adult louse will be darker. Females, larger than the males, lay up to eight eggs a day. Adult lice can live up to thirty days in a child’s hair, and need to feed on blood several times a day, without which they will die within a day or two. Only the adult lice can spread to another child. The life cycle of the head louse is from one to three weeks; this makes it important to repeat the treatment regularly over this timescale to ensure that the life cycle is properly disrupted.
Signs and symptoms to look for:
Head scratching, possibly resulting in scratch marks on the scalp especially behind the ears, near hairline and at the back of the head and neck. Live lice in the hair. Nits, smooth glistening specks stuck to the hair near the scalp. You may find a one or two, or hundreds of nits in the hair of an infested child.
How do you get rid of them?
There are a variety of lice treatments available in the form of medicated shampoos. Most are insecticides, and you may choose not to use such strong chemicals on your child’s scalp. They are available at the Apotheke, along with the special lice comb. The fine toothed plastic combs are best. The shampoo only kills the adult lice, so to disrupt the lice cycle, you’ll need to shampoo once a week for three weeks, together with thorough combing.
Removing nits with a comb is beneficial to the treatment as it prevents new lice being hatched. You should check the hair of everyone in the home. The scalp may be itchy for a few days after treatment.
If you choose not to use a medicated shampoo to kill the lice, removal with the comb can be an effective alternative. Combing wet, conditioned hair with a fine detector comb more regularly, every other day for a fortnight, will remove the lice. Removal of nits is highly recommended to prevent new lice hatching out, so you need a comb that is fine enough to remove the nits as well as the lice.
If in doubt, your school nurse is there to help.
Should You Clean Your Home?
Research suggests that if adult lice do fall off the child’s head, they are likely to be already dead or dying, so will be unable to lay more eggs. It’s therefore unnecessary to treat your entire house. However, changing your child’s pillowcase, laundering or vacuuming car seats, washing hats and scarves, and cleaning hairgrips etc is worthwhile.
Don’t feel bad! Head lice infestation is not a reflection on your parenting, or on your child’s cleanliness; the lice aren’t choosy like that.