They’re tiny, itchy and live on your child’s scalp. Head lice can be a nuisance because they spread very easily from child to child. Here are some practical solutions to get rid of them.
It can be quite distressing to find out that your child has head lice – the thought of creepy crawlies living in your little one’s hair leading to understandable feelings of revulsion. However, you should take some comfort in the knowledge that head lice are a common childhood complaint – it is estimated that around one in five children have them at any one time. They pose no real health threat and can be eradicated relatively easily through a number of different methods.
What are head lice?
Head lice are parasitical insects that live on the human head and feed by sucking blood from the scalp. They are small, wingless and grey or brown in colour, making them difficult to detect in human hair. Adult head lice attach their eggs to the bases of strands of hair using their saliva which – once dried – makes the eggs very difficult to remove.
How did my child catch head lice?
Head lice have no wings so cannot fly. Neither can they jump – they need head-to-head contact to be able to crawl from one head to another. This is why they are commonly found among children aged 4-11 years who will be working and playing in close proximity with each other. Adults caring for this age group are also at risk of catching them, as are siblings and other family members. There are a lot of misconceptions about head lice preferring unkempt and unwashed hair, but in fact they are just as happy in clean hair. Head lice are not spread by contact with infested clothing, bedding, towels or hats, so such items do not need to be washed or treated.
How can I tell if my child has head lice?
Head lice are very well camouflaged in hair and can be difficult to detect. One of the first signs of your child having head lice is them complaining of having an itchy scalp. It is not uncommon for older children to scratch their irritated scalps so vigorously that they break the teeth on their combs. However, head lice can in fact live on a head without causing any itching for up to three months. Other tell-tale signs for head lice include:
- Shiny, whitish or yellowish egg casings (commonly referred to as ‘nits’ stuck to the hair. These are typically close to the scalp, often behind the ears and at the back of the neck, but may also be located further along the hair shaft
- live adult head lice visible on the scalp or crawling along hair shafts
- a rash on the back of the neck caused by irritation from louse droppings
If you suspect head lice but can’t see any evidence on inspection, you can try using a fine-toothed comb and combing the hair over a white tissue where they can be more easily seen. However, this method isn’t reliable, as the lice can detect disturbances and move down the shaft of the hair and away from the comb. If you are concerned that your child has lice but can’t find any evidence of them, make an appointment with your doctor.
How do I get rid of head lice?
There are two methods of getting rid of head lice. You can use either chemical treatments which poison the lice or a physical bug-busting method that removes them by repeated wet-combing, which interrupts their life.
Chemical treatments use either an insecticide or other chemical solution to kill lice. The treatment involves applying the chemical to your child’s head and leaving it in place for anything 10 minutes and 12 hours, depending on the solution you are using. After the instructed amount of time has elapsed, the hair needs to be rinsed and wet-combed to remove any dead lice. This method kills live lice (providing they are not resistant to the chemical) but it won’t necessarily destroy all the eggs, which means that the procedure needs to be repeated a week later to kill any newly hatched lice. The disadvantages with chemical treatments are:
- they are relatively expensive
- some lice are resistant to certain treatments and won’t be killed
- some treatments cannot be repeated more than three times as they are skin irritants
- they won’t prevent your child becoming re-infested between treatments
- they may not be suitable for children under one year old or for children with asthma or allergies. They may also not be suitable if you are pregnant or breastfeeding
This method removes live lice from wet hair with a nit comb, which can be bought from a pharmacy. A nit comb is a fine-toothed plastic comb with a spacing of less than 0.3mm between teeth to trap the lice as the comb is drawn through the hair. By using the bug-busting procedure four times over 14 days, the lifecycle of the louse is broken and your child’s head becomes louse-free.
- Wash your child’s hair with ordinary shampoo, rinse and liberally apply hair conditioner, massing it into their hair.
- Use a normal wide-toothed comb to detangle the hair. Then, take the nit comb and slot the teeth into a section of hair at the roots, slowly drawing it down to the tips. Wet, conditioner-coated lice stay still and will be caught in the teeth of the comb. Once you have drawn the comb through, wipe the teeth clean with tissue paper or rinse under a tap to remove the lice.
- Continue with this procedure working progressively in sections all the way around your child’s head. When you’ve finished, rinse the hair well and check for any remaining lice. Use the nit comb to pick any that you see out of the wet hair.
- repeat the bug-busting procedure three more times, leaving three clear days between each session. This will remove any lice that have hatched before they get a chance to reproduce and lay more eggs. By day 17, your child’s hair should be free of lice.
- Any lice found on the head on the subsequent bug-busting sessions that follow the first should be those that are newly hatched nymphs that are around 1-2.5mm long. If you find full-grown lice (3mm long) during the second, third or fourth sessions, it means that your child has caught lice again. If this is the case, you will need to continue with the bug-busting twice a week for three more sessions.
- Natural methods: Hair treatment and lotions containing natural oils, such as tea tree oil, are sometimes recommended, but there is no scientific evidence to prove that they are effective. Although they may be natural, these treatments can be strong and may cause scalp irritation.
Can my child still mix with other children?
Your child should not mix with others once you have first detected head lice, but as soon as you start actively treating their hair, they can recommence close socialising again. This is because it is only the adult lice that can move from head to head – newly-hatched nymphs will stay on your child’s head for around six days. Once you have started treating your child’s hair, you will be eliminating the adult lice, so your child will not be posing a risk to others. As soon as you first detect head lice on your child’s head it’s important to actively treat the whole family in order to prevent the risk of the infestation spreading.