Head lice are tiny, parasitic insects that live on the scalp and feed on tiny amount of blood drawn from the scalp. Lice (which is the plural of louse) are a very common problem, especially for young children. They’re not dangerous but are highly contagious, annoying, and if left unchecked can lead to an infestation that can last for a long time and be very irritating to your child. Fortunately, there are several treatments available.
Adult head lice are very small: about 3mm long, or the size of a sesame seed. Nits are even smaller and look a bit like dandruff, except that they tend to stick to the hair.
It takes about seven to 10 days for an egg to hatch, and adult lice can live on the scalp for about 30 days. They survive by sucking tiny amounts of blood from the scalp. During their lifespans, female lice can lay up to 150 eggs.
How common are head lice?
Lice can be found worldwide and are most common in preschool and elementary school children ( children between the ages of 4 and 11). The presence of lice in hair does not translate to poor hygiene as they can also be found in clean hair. As long as your young ones come in close contact with an infected person, they’re most likely to get it.
Ways of transmission
For head lice to be transmitted, close, head-to-head contact needs to be initiated as these lice can neither jump or fly. This explains why they are most prevalent in younger children as they tend to work, learn, and play in close proximity at school or other play areas or camps. Sharing of hats, combs, pillows, beddings and so on can also help spread head lice.
Head lice is quite prevalent in girls than boys and also if your daughter has long hair or older siblings who may be infected already.
Symptoms of head lice
Head lice can be pretty difficult to spot unless the most common symptom (itching) occurs. Contrary to popular belief, children do not start itching as soon as they get infected with head lice. The itching only occurs when the scalp becomes sensitive and irritated toward the lice saliva, and this can take up to weeks or months after the lice has already gotten on to the scalp. Most of the itching happens behind the ears or at the back of the neck. Also, itching caused by head lice can last for weeks, even after the lice has gone.
The only sure way to be certain if your child has head lice is to check for them yourself. You can use a special fine-toothed comb to check for lice.
How to check for lice
- Choose a comb with plastic teeth, rather than metal teeth to avoid pulling too much on your child’s hair.
- It is best and easier to check for lice on wet hair with a lot of conditioner. The conditioner helps in trapping the lice, so they do not crawl away before you detect them.
- Wash your child’s hair with her shampoo, then apply plenty of conditioner and leave it in
- Move to a well lit room and comb hair thoroughly with a wide tooth comb to remove any tangles.
- Part the hair and use a nit comb (special comb for detecting hair lice or a regular comb) from the roots of your child’s hair to the tips. Keep the comb in contact with her scalp as much as possible.
- Look for crawling lice on your child’s scalp. If you find any nits or lice, wipe or rinse the comb
- Repeat the process in sections until you’ve covered the whole hair.
- Live lice are hard to find, so you may have to do the whole process a couple of times, especially if you’ve found lice.
- Nits or lice will look like small white or yellow-brown specks and be firmly attached to the hair near the scalp.
- This method is called wet combing.
- The easiest place to find them is at the hairline at the back of the neck or behind the ears. Nits or lice can most times be confused with dandruff, dirt particles, or hair spray droplets. The way to tell the difference is that lice are firmly attached to hair, while dandruff, dirt, or other particles are not.
Treatment of hair lice
There is unfortunately no quick method to get rid of your child’s head lice. The most effective ways are wet combing (as described above) and using chemical treatments.
Before treating your child, check everyone in your house for lice using the wet combing technique described above. Treat anyone who’s affected on the same day, to reduce the risk of re-infestation.
Though petroleum jelly, mayonnaise, or olive oil are sometimes used in an attempt to suffocate head lice, these treatments may not work. If medicine doesn’t work and you want to try these methods, talk to your doctor first.
Make sure you remove nits carefully every week for at least 3 weeks in a row, and watch your child closely to see if any live lice return.
Head lice medicine should be used only when it is certain that your child has living head lice.
There are several head lice treatments (insecticides) that can be bought over the counter, but it is best to consult with your doctor especially if:
- You are pregnant or breastfeeding
- Your child is younger than 2 years old
- Or if your child suffers from asthma or any skin condition.
- Your doctor can recommend a medicated shampoo, cream rinse, or lotion to kill the lice. These may be over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medications, depending on what treatments have already been tried. Medicated lice treatments usually kill the lice, but it may take a few days for the itching to stop. For very resistant lice, an oral medication (medicine taken by mouth) might be prescribed.
- It is very important to follow the directions on the product label exactly as some of these products are insecticides and should be used with care.
Treatment may be unsuccessful if the medication is not used correctly or if the lice are resistant to it.
After each treatment, using the comb-out method every 2 to 3 days for 2 to 3 weeks may help remove any newly hatched nits.
Here are some simple ways to get rid of the lice and their eggs, and help prevent a lice reinfestation:
- Wash all bed linens and clothing that’s been recently worn by anyone in your home who’s infested in very hot water.
- Dry clean anything that can’t be washed (like stuffed animals). Or put them in airtight bags for at least 3 days.
- Vacuum carpets and any upholstered furniture (in your home or car), then throw away the vacuum cleaner bag.
- Soak hair-care items like combs, barrettes, hair ties or bands, headbands, and brushes in rubbing alcohol or medicated shampoo for 1 hour. You also can wash them in hot water or just throw them away.