Back to school can unfortunately bring with it dreaded Head Lice. Children are most likely to have head lice infestations because of their relative close proximity to one another in schools and the playground. They are not a cause for embarrassment nor are they a result of unhygienic environments, but because of their highly contagious nature they simply thrive in busy close human to human places, like kids parties, sport activities and summer camps.
Head lice are a harmless but irritating pest that can cause severe distress to both parents and children. Most people will experience trying to tackle head lice at some point in their lives. Head lice are not dangerous for your child, but you do want to get rid of them as soon as possible to avoid spreading to others.
In our Haven Pharmacies, we often meet parents who have taken every precaution available to them and are still surprised when their child manages to catch head lice. You cannot prevent head lice and anyone with hair can get head lice not just children. Despite common misconception, they aren’t fussy about clean or dirty hair!
Hopefully this blog will enable you to spot a louse, but if in doubt, we would encourage you to drop into your local Haven to speak to an expert who can advise you on the best course of action.
What are Head Lice?
Head lice are small blood sucking insects that live on the human scalp. They are one of the most common childhood conditions worldwide. Head lice are tiny wingless insects that are grey-brown in colour. They are the size of a pinhead when they hatch and 3mm long (the size of a sesame seed) when fully grown. Although children are most commonly affected, anyone with hair can get head lice. Nits are empty eggs left behind when lice hatch. They can be white, yellow or brown.
What Causes Head Lice?
They are passed by head to head contact. They cannot jump or fly from one head to another, so it is this close contact that spreads them from one person to another. They prefer the warmest parts of the head so are usually found behind the ears or in the nape of the neck. Head lice only affect humans and cannot be passed on to animals or be caught from them. Lice will not survive on bedding or clothing, but it’s advised to change and wash pillow cases after detection.
Signs and Symptoms
The usual symptoms of head lice are persistent itching of the scalp, finding empty white or opaque eggshells in the hair or on the shoulders. Itching is not caused by the lice biting the scalp but by an allergy to the lice so may not always be present. Some people are not allergic to head lice, so they may not notice that they have a head lice infestation. Even if someone with head lice is allergic to them, itching can take up to three months to develop. In some cases of head lice, a rash may appear on the back of the neck. This is caused by a reaction to louse droppings.
Detecting Head Lice
In order to confirm an active infestation, a louse must be found through a reliable method, such as using a fine tooth comb otherwise known as wet combing. No treatment should be used unless a louse is found. Regular combing is more effective at detection than relying on a repellent spray. A good tip is to use a hair dryer on low speed and low heat to search the hair thoroughly.
Treating Head Lice
There are many treatments for treating head lice and help reduce their reoccurance:
- Wet comb children’s hair regularly to prevent an infestation of head lice. The hair is divided into sections with a regular comb, and then a lice detection comb should be drawn from the scalp to the ends of the hair, checking for lice at each stroke. Sufficient combing may take up to 30 minutes per head. Parents can be reassured that regular combing can be just as effective as a chemical-based treatment at removing live lice, especially in smaller numbers.
- If head lice are found, inform those who they have been in close contact with, to check if they are present in their children.
- Head lice can be found in all types of hair, clean or dirty, long or short, so children should be reassured it’s not a ‘dirty’ problem
- Head lice don’t live on pets or other animals, so they can’t be caught from a family pet
- Resistance to head lice treatments can occur, so only treat those who have head lice. Head lice treatment should never be used unless a live louse is found.
- Conduct regular weekly checks for head lice to make sure that you can treat an infestation as soon as possible
- Medicated lotions and sprays are not effective in preventing head lice infestations. They should only be used if a live louse has been found on your or your child’s head.
- Treatment can be regarded as successful if no live lice are found on both days three and seven after completion of a course of treatment.
- Itching may persist several weeks after a successful treatment and parents should be reassured not to keep re-treating unless you find live lice.
Check the hair again 2 days after the treatment, to make sure it has worked. If you find nits, but don’t find lice, don’t treat again. Nits may be left behind on the hairs but this does not mean the treatment has failed. Only treat if you find living, moving lice. If you find lice after the treatment, it means that your child has been re-infected with lice or the initial treatment wasn’t carried out correctly. Check the whole family again and treat all those with lice and ask your GP or Haven pharmacist for more advice.
Prevention Is Better Than Cure
The best way to prevent head lice is to keep long hair tied up in a plait or a bun. Tea Tree Oil shampoo can also be used to prevent head lice. You can either buy one of these ready-made shampoos or you can add a few drops of tea tree oil to your regular soft shampoo. Tea tree oil contains terpenoids, which have antiseptic and antifungal properties, and have thus the property to kill adult head lice and nymphs.
Head lice do not survive long if they fall off a person and cannot feed. Follow these steps to help avoid re–infestation by lice that have recently fallen off the hair or crawled onto clothing or furniture:
– Machine wash and dry clothing, bed linens, and other items that the infested person wore or used during the 2 days before treatment using the hot water (60°C) cycle and the high heat drying cycle. Clothing and items that are not washable can be dry–cleaned or sealed in a plastic bag and stored for 2 weeks.
– Soak combs and brushes in hot water (at least 60°C) for 5–10 minutes.
– Vacuum the floor and furniture, particularly where the infested person sat or lay. However, the risk of getting infested by a louse that has fallen onto a rug or carpet or furniture is very small. Head lice survive less than 1–2 days if they fall off a person and cannot feed; nits cannot hatch and usually die within a week if they are not kept at the same temperature as that found close to the human scalp
There are a range of very effective over the counter remedies available from your local Haven Pharmacy to help treat head lice. If a pharmacy treatment is requested, either a pesticide or a non-pesticide lotion can be recommended. All need to be repeated and none guarantee absolute success. Please speak to one of our trained advisers or ask your Haven Pharmacist for advice on which treatment suits your needs. For more information check out the HSE Website