preventing head lice
Health and safety

Preventing head lice

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.

Head checks

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.

Over-the-counter treatments

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.

Mum’s tip

“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!”

  • Kate Gunn, mum-of-three

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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Ask Sarah

Q I’ve heard a lot about the Paleo diet and as I am very interested in reducing the amount of processed foods and grain based meals my family eats, we are considering following this diet. From what I read it seems to be a back-to-basics type of eating. Is a Paleo diet safe for children? My kids are aged seven and nine.

A The Paleo diet is one of the most fashionable diets around at the moment. It is also known as the ‘caveman diet’ and is based on cutting out processed foods, starchy foods like bread and potatoes and eating more meat, vegetables and fruit.
As fad diets go, it is not the worst but there are some good and bad sides to it. Reducing the amount of processed foods we eat is always a good idea and by doing that you will usually reduce the amount of fat, salt and sugar you eat, which is a good thing! The problem with the Paleo diet is that it also cuts out dairy (on the basis that cavemen didn’t drink milk) and this means that the diet is very low in calcium. For this reason it is really not suitable for children who do need a lot of calcium for growing bones. How did cavemen manage without dairy? They ate a lot more food than we do (up to 10,000 calories per day compared to the 2,000 most of us eat). By eating that amount of food they were able to pick up just enough calcium from green vegetables and seeds. To put it in perspective, you would need to eat 16 servings of broccoli a day to get all the calcium you need. This is easier to do if you eat 10,000 calories per day rather than 2,000.
The other problem with the paleo diet is that it is not entirely based in science. Many of the Paleo diets out there say you should not eat wheat, even though we know that cavemen did in fact eat wheat and other grains. These diets also don’t recommend that you eat blubber and the big lumps of fat that were also a large part of the caveman diet!
A final problem is that many Paleo diets encourage people to cut out beans and lentils and to get their protein from meat and fish instead. Many studies over the last few years are clear that eating too much animal protein is linked with more cancer and heart disease. Eating some vegetarian meals based on beans and lentils is a great way to get your protein without always going for meat.
Is this a diet we should follow? I think there is a lot we can learn from the Paleo diets. We could all do with eating less salt, sugar and processed foods and adding in more nuts and seeds as well as more vegetables. However, I think following a strict Paleo diet could lead to low levels of calcium and vitamin D and so it is not suitable for children or teens and adults would need to think about a calcium supplement.



Q My son is 18 months old and has just started saying his first words. It is an extremely exciting time in our house and my husband and I are eager to encourage his speaking as much possible. What advice would you give us on how we can foster this without bombarding and confusing him?

AThere is nothing better than hearing your baby begin to talk. All the hard work you have put in over the last two years is coming back tenfold.
Toddlers will vary significantly with ability and speed of which they talk however a guide would be about 50 words by 2 years of age. The most important thing to watch for is that your baby/toddler is cooing and babbling and begins to string sounds together like “Mama/Dada” They should have a wide range of speech sounds and like to imitate you and things they hear.
There are many ways that you can promote Speech and Language development at home:
1. Slowing down your own speech and taking time over conversations with your little one. Every day is a new experience when you are 18 months, nappy changes, bath time, baking a cake brings endless opportunity for you to interact and offer new words for them to hear and repeat. Make eye contact, smile and use exaggerated tones to keep things interesting and fun for your tot.
2. Review the toys that you have on offer to your tot and ensure that they give plenty of open ended play opportunities. Role play is a wonderful way to allow children to take the lead. Kitchens with lots of plates, cups and pots. Fill the pots with dry pasta and allow your child to cook and serve you. Playdoh, painting, gardening and sandpits are also great for allowing your child to take the lead and babble about what they are doing. Read plenty of books together and point and allow them time to answer any questions that you ask.
3. Limit screen time. Overuse of televisions and iPads do not give your child opportunity to interact in a two way manner.
4. Ask your child lots of open ended questions “What’s that?” “Where are we?” Point at things they know the answer to for boosting confidence (Car/ Car, etc.) When they don’t know the answer, explain it to them. Limit baby talk and speak clearly with good pronunciation, remember you are the teacher and they will copy you.
If you are concerned about your child’s speech and language development, be sure to speak with your GP or developmental Health Nurse. They are very skilled at understanding the difference between speech delays and spotting something that may require professional attention.
Enjoy watching their little brains absorb the world around them and listen to what they have to say. It won’t be too long before they won’t stop talking to you, asking “Why Mummy/ Daddy?” every 5 minutes….