Head lice, or nits, are an age old problem – they have always existed in human communities and they can only be tackled by a community approach of prevention and eradication. Read more on treatments for how to get rid of head lice.
They are commonly seen as a school issue, as this is often where head lice are transmitted due to close contact between children in classrooms. Schools and kindergartens in New Zealand are duty-bound to inform parents if head lice are found at school; the issue should be treated sensitively and anonymously. If you need more information about dealing with head lice in schools check out the Ministry of Education’s website.
Beating head lice can be tough but the spread of the infestation can be controlled by adequately treating people who are infested and by taking precautionary measures to repel the lice.
The key to eradication is to break the lifecycle of the head lice.
What are head lice, or nits, and how do they live?
The head louse is a tiny greyish-brown wingless insect – roughly the same size as a sesame seed on a burger bun when fully grown.
Nits on the other hand are the empty egg cases left behind after head lice have hatched and are found cemented tightly onto the hair shaft, where they remain for weeks or months even when the head lice themselves have been cleared.
Head lice live on the head and feed by sucking blood from the scalp. The eggs of the female use glands in her reproductive system which secrete a super-strong adhesive that holds the egg in place.
The eggs of head lice hatch in about 7-10 days. The egg-to-egg cycle is about 3-4 weeks.
How do you know if you have head lice or not?
Some people will not have any symptoms and therefore will not know if they are infected. Others will get an itchy scalp, which is due to sensitivity to the head louse saliva.
Here are some signs that should alert you that you, or a member of your family, might have head lice…
- If you or a member of your family has found living, moving lice in their hair
- If you or a member of your family persistently scratch the scalp or the scalp itches
- If any of you have had head to head contact with someone who is infected with head lice
All families should check for head lice weekly, using a bright light, parting the hair and doing a wet comb or a dry comb (see below for details).
Common places to look are behind the ears, in the nape of the neck, the front of the scalp and at the base of pony tails (these places are nice and warm and have a great blood supply for the lice).
Common things to look for:
- Small red dots, which could be head lice bites
- Moving head lice
- Eggs – which feel gritty / lumpy and do not fall from the hair, like dandruff does.
What do nits look like?
5 treatments for how to get rid of head lice
There are several options you have for the treatment of head lice:
1. Chemical solutions
These can be purchased from pharmacies. These are expensive and all chemicals carry risk, especially when applied to the skin. Follow the manufacturer’s directions carefully.
2. Wet combing
Apply lots and lots of conditioner to the hair to immobilise the lice, then comb the hair, firstly with a normal comb to remove tangles, then with a fine comb (or nit comb) from the roots all the way to the tips, to remove the lice and eggs. Do each section of the hair then rinse off the conditioner. Repeat every second day for 3 weeks, or until clear. Alternatively, apply lots of conditioner and put a swimming hat on your child, leaving it on overnight. This should kill the lice. You will still need to do regular combing to ensure some wee nits have not been left behind.
3. Dry combing
This requires much patience for combing the hair section by section, using a fine toothed comb. Fingernails can also be used to remove stubborn eggs! Repeat every second day for 3 weeks or until head is clear.
4. Electric combs
These can be purchased from pharmacies. They are battery operated and kill the lice, making them easier to remove. Use on dry hair only!
5. Herbal remedies
These are also available but their effectiveness is not scientifically proven; however, many parents have used them with success. There are websites links below for those preferring to use chemical-free and toxin-free products in the battle against head lice. Some products, for example, use citrus extracts, tea tree oil or olive oil.
Video courtesy: HappyHeadsProducts
How are head lice spread?
Head lice are usually spread by direct head-to-head contact with infested persons and sometimes by objects such as pillows, combs, hats etc., when the item is used immediately after use by an infested person.
Dispelling some common head-lice myths
- Head lice cannot survive more than 48 hours away from a human host.
- Head lice do not fly, they cannot be caught from animals and they do not live in furniture, bedding, carpets or clothes.
- Do not rely on scratching to become aware of head lice infestation – many people do not suffer itching as a symptom.
- A common misconception is that they are a symptom of poor hair hygiene – rest assured this is not true. Lice are equally likely to be found on clean or dirty hair!
Prevention of head lice – infestation and re-infestation
- Avoid head-to-head contact with other people, especially in schools and day care centres
- Wash your child’s hair daily and dry with a hot hair dryer – this can be effective in keeping those ‘unwelcome little friends’ at bay!
- Keep long hair tied back, especially at school
- Don’t share hats, bike helmets, brushes, combs or pillows
- Check children’s hair weekly
- Wash in hot water the pillow cases, towels and hats of infected people – a combination of tea tree drops and lemongrass with the water works well. These products added to shampoos may also work as a lice deterrent
- Treat all infested people as soon as lice are detected. Re-treating after three days is generally recommended
- Comb hair regularly with a good quality metal-toothed nit comb. A battery operated comb which sends out electric shock waves is another option.
- Consider using a natural repellant product that includes tea tree oil or sandalwood as a possible line of defence.
Now that you know the 5 treatments for how to get rid of head lice, you may want to know about 3 more, very common, children’s conditions often picked up from school.