09 Sep 2021

Head lice

Head lice or ‘nits’ is a common condition which mainly affects children although adults can also be affected. They are caused by small insects which lay eggs on the scalp, hatching after 7 to 10 days. This results in an itchy scalp and neck.

Head lice are embarrassing and unpleasant but do not cause any ill effects and are easy to treat. However they don’t clear up by themselves so require treatment, usually in the form of a special shampoo or lotion. This needs to be done sooner rather than later.

How do head lice develop?

Head lice are actually small wingless insects which lay eggs that attach themselves to the hair next to your scalp. These eggs hatch 7 to 10 days later, leaving empty shells – known as ‘nits’ – which fasten onto your hair.

These nits have a white colour and look very similar to dandruff. But they are difficult to shift with normal shampooing and rinsing and require a stronger solution.

Causes of head lice

They occur in young children usually as a result of close contact with each other. Girls are more likely to be affected than boys.

Head lice do NOT hop, skip and jump from one child to another. They can only be transmitted to another child via head to head contact. Plus they don’t survive for long if they are no longer attached to the scalp.

Head lice can be found in all types of hair irrespective of the colour, style and length. They are not confined to dirty hair and can be found in clean hair.

If you or your child develops this condition it does not mean that you are filthy or have poor personal hygiene.

Symptoms of head lice

The main symptom is an itchy scalp, especially around the back of the head or ears. You may notice white coloured nits stuck to individual hairs as they fall out.

There is the temptation to scratch the scalp but too much of this will break the skin, leading to infections. An itchy scalp is a characteristic sign of head lice but it can also be a symptom of another skin condition such as eczema.

Diagnosis of head lice

You cannot spot head lice purely by looking at your hair. Try ‘detection combing’ in which you use a special fine toothed comb through your hair. This is easier to do with wet hair rather than dry hair as dry hair enables the head lice to move around and avoid detection.

Apply a few drops of hair conditioner to lubricate the hair before running a comb through it. Comb it thoroughly from the top of the hair to the bottom and check the comb for lice each time you do so. Do this over a bowl of water or a towel to catch any head lice.

If you find an individual ‘nit’ then put this in a small container (attach it to a piece of paper) and ask a pharmacist, practice nurse or GP for advice. Plus they will be able to recommend suitable forms of treatment.

Note: a diagnosis of head lice is only confirmed if live nits are found.

Treatment for head lice

There are several forms of treatment which include insecticides, ‘wet combing’ and other medication.

Insecticides are alcohol or water based products which is rubbed into your scalp in the same way as shampoo and then rinsed off. These products are available as creams or lotions and are effective at removing head lice. Ensure you follow the instructions carefully but check with your GP or pharmacist first especially if it is your child with the infection.

Wet combing involves the use of a special comb, e.g. ‘Bug Buster Kit’ which is especially designed for head lice. You run the comb through the hair, removing head lice as you do so. This is not as effective as an insecticide but some people prefer this to using chemicals on their hair.

Other medication refers to non-insecticides. These products are chemical-free solutions which are applied to the hair and left for a period of time before washing out.

Follow up any of these with a combing out of the hair using a special head lice comb. If you notice any nits then don’t assume that the treatment has not been a success as they may have died and what you are left with is the empty shells.

If you are not sure whether the treatment has worked than ask your pharmacist or GP for advice.

Preventing head lice

At one time schools used to employ a nurse to check the pupils’ heads for nits but this may no longer be the case. If you are a parent then get into the habit of checking your children’s heads on regular occasions. Do this if they have been in contact with another child with head lice.

If your child or children have developed head lice then mention this to the school. They can arrange for the other children to be checked as necessary. Don’t keep your children off school as this can be counter productive.

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