The mere thought of head lice (also known as nits) can make you feel like your head is uncontrollably itchy. Learn about the symptoms plus discover how to treat and soothe the itch and prevent further infestations in our guide to preventing head lice.
Although it may be inevitable that your child will encounter head lice at least once during their school years, it’s always good to know how to identify these tiny insects and appropriate treatment needed. Children are more prone to head lice than adults due to being in large groups, close head-to-head contact and sharing personal items.
What are head lice?
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. Head lice cannot fly, jump or swim. According to the HSE, they are spread by head-to-head contact and climb from the hair of an infected person to the hair of someone else.
Lice are a human parasite, so they cannot spread between humans and animals. They also live off blood from the scalp; they are very dependent on human blood. For instance a louse cannot survive longer than 24 hours without blood and when nits hatch, if they do not receive a drop of blood within 45 minutes, they will die.
Children are most commonly affected by head lice, although anyone with hair can catch them. Kids tend to be more affected by head lice because they tend to have more head-to-head contact while at school or during play. Head lice are most common in children between four to 11 years old.
Signs of head lice
- Itching or tickling scalp. Itching isn’t caused by lice biting the scalp, but by an allergy to the lice.
- Red bumps on the scalp or irritation.
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.
If your child or someone in your family has lice, it is important to do a spot check on everyone else in the home for infestation. Head lice are difficult to detect on the head, even when the head is closely inspected. Unhatched eggs or nits (empty eggshells) alone are not enough to diagnose an active head lice infestation.
This is because it can be difficult to distinguish between eggs and nits that are dead or alive. Nits also often remain glued to hairs after successful treatment. In order to confirm an active infestation, a louse must be found through a reliable method, such as detection combing.
When looking for lice, separate the hair into sections and, using a fine toothcomb or nit removal comb, check each section of the hair. Lice will range in colour from light brown to gray, while nits will be at the base of the hair shaft and will be light brown, tan or white.
Once you know that your child has head lice, you can then begin to medically treat it. Over-the-counter treatments such as medicated shampoo are the standard way of treatment. This will involve putting the shampoo in the hair and leaving it for some time, then washing it out. Another method regularly used is removing head lice by hand, with a nit removal comb. If you need to do this, wetting the hair will immobilise lice for a short period of time, making it easier for removal. Split the hair into sections and work with one section at a time.
It’s important to note, that neither treatment method will protect against re-infestation if head-to-head contact is made with someone with head lice during the treatment period.
Try to limit scratching
If your child is suffering with itching, excessive scratching can lead to bacterial infection, so it is important to consistently treat head lice and to tell your child ‘try not to scratch’ when an irritating itch comes along. If this happens, your GP can prescribe an oral antibiotic, which will kill overly resistant lice.
How to stop the spread
Lice can spread from hats, pillows, duvets and any other personal item that can be shared and to come in contact with the head. It is important to always wash these items regularly and anything that cannot be washed should be put in plastic bags and put away until lice have been removed. Putting duvets, pillowcases and blankets into a dryer, on a high heat for 30 minutes, will kill any lice that may be roaming, as lice hate high heat! It will also help to vacuum padded furniture and carpets regularly.
Because head lice are spread by head-to-head contact, it’s difficult to prevent a head lice infestation. Carry out regular detection combing on your child’s head so you can find new lice quickly.
Pharmacist Caitriona O’Riordan advises parents not to panic if they find a live lice in their child’s hair. “Head lice are a normal part of life and are nothing to be embarrassed about. Our advice to parents is to check their children’s hair regularly, ideally once a week.”
We are reminding parents that treatment should only be applied if a living, moving louse is found. While it is understandable that parents want to try and prevent an outbreak, using treatment products as a precautionary measure does not work,” explains Caitriona.
“Many people get embarrassed about headlice, but it’s a fact of life for all parents of school \ playschool kids. Don’t be embarrassed – always tell the school immediately and then treat appropriately as soon as possible. Other parents will thank rather than judge you for being so pro-active!”
Head lice myths
There are several myths surrounding head lice. The first is that those of poor hygiene only contract head lice, but this is the furthest thing from the truth. In fact, lice are usually drawn to those who are very hygienic and have healthy habits. The second is that if your child has head lice or if head lice spreads through schools, you must keep your child at home. This may have been the case some time ago, but not any more. These days, it is recommended that you allow your child to go to school, and every day, when they get home, use the treatment.
If your child does get head lice, don’t panic. It happens to a lot of children and once you follow the correct treatment, and be patient, the lice will eventually die out.
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