Dealing with head lice

Few of us will have escaped the embarrassment and misery of head lice during our school years, and doubtless our own kids also dread the arrival of the 'nit nurse'.

Dealing with head lice

Pic: Getty

If you are a parent and would like to know how to avoid or treat these irritating insects, here are the facts.

What are they?
Head lice are tiny wingless insects that live in human hair. Grey-brown in colour and roughly the size of a sesame seed when fully grown, they spread from person to person via direct contact, simply climbing from head to head.

They affect all types of hair, regardless of condition or length, and are particularly common in children.

How to spot them
While itching is often regarded as the first sign of head lice, this only occurs in those who have an allergy to the lice. Even then, it can take up to three months for the itching to begin, and without looking, it may not be noticeable in those children who are not allergic. In some cases, a rash may be visible on the back of the neck, caused by an allergic reaction to lice droppings.

Thorough checking is key to finding and treating these tiny creatures, and spotting live lice can be tricky, even on close inspection. Unhatched eggs or nits (the empty eggshells) do not necessarily signify an infestation - to confirm an active infestation, a louse must be found, and detection combing is the best way of doing this.

It can be carried out on wet or dry hair, though wet combing is often easier as the lice remain motionless when wet. Fine-toothed detection combs are available in most pharmacies, and should have a tooth spacing of less than 0.3mm in order to trap the lice.

Before coming, wash the hair with an ordinary shampoo and apply a generous amount of conditioner. Then comb the hair through with a standard comb until it moves freely through without hitting tangles. At this point, you can switch to the detection comb, slotting it in at the root of the hair and drawing down to the ends of the hair, checking for lice after each stroke. Any lice found should be wiped off or rinsed out. Continue this process in a methodical manner, being sure to comb through each and every section of the hair. Once complete, wash out the conditioner and try again.

With dry combing, use the same steps, but keep your eyes peeled for lice as you draw the comb down through the hair. If you spot one, trap it against the face of the comb with your thumb, then remove.

Should you find a live louse, it is likely there is an active infestation, and therefore every member of the family should be checked and treated if necessary.

Wet combing on a regular basis can help to keep head lice under control, but it can be time consuming and there may still be unhatched or young lice remaining.

When an infestation is found, medicated lotion or spray is often advised, and a pharmacist will be able to recommend an over-the-counter product. Most treatments need to be left on for a certain length of time to be effective, though this varies greatly from 10 minutes up to eight hours. You will need to coat the scalp and the entire length of the hair in each application, and other family members may also require treatment, so make sure you buy enough for all. It is generally recommended that you repeat the treatment after seven days, but most should not be used more than once a week for three weeks in a row.

Be aware though, that medicated treatments should only be used if a living head louse is found, and medical advice should be sought if an infestation occurs in a young baby, during pregnancy, or in someone who has asthma or allergies. And if the problem persists after treatment, you should speak to your school nurse, pharmacist or GP.

Unfortunately, head lice infestations are notoriously difficult to prevent, but the quicker you spot the problem, the easier it will be to treat, so regular detection combing is the best way to keep the problem under control.

Has your child had a continued problem with head lice? Which treatment worked best for you? Leave your comments below...