This Is What You Need To Know About Head Lice
20 min read
Picture this: it’s a normal afternoon until your child comes home with an unwelcome guest: a head lice warning note from their school. Even worse, they’ve come home scratching. These uninvited guests are often the result of your child’s buzzing social life (think: a hug hello) and they can be a pest to get rid of.
If you’re a parent of a child in childcare or school, this may be an all too familiar tale. So, what are you to do when they come crawling? Equipping yourself with an arsenal of knowledge about the critters on your child’s scalp can be a good place to start. After all, knowledge is power.
Read on to discover how lice spread
, when you need to keep your child home from school, and the all-important tips for how to eliminate the infestation from your home.
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Head lice are small, wingless insects that live in the hair on the human scalp. They’ve evolved alongside humans and have now reached a point where they can only survive on us (1).
Lice can only survive on human hair for up to two days and need to feed on the scalp multiple times a day. They’re common for children aged 3-11 years old but anyone can experience an outbreak (1).
Head lice eggs are called nits which are roughly the size of a sesame seed. Despite their size, they can’t be shaken off or brushed out easily. Lice will lay their eggs on hair shafts close to the scalp, relying on the warmth of the head for them to successfully hatch.
Lice feed on the blood of the scalp, which is why many people report an itching sensation when experiencing an infestation (1).
Head lice are human parasites and have likely been on earth as long as we have. In fact, dried lice and their eggs (the nits) have even been found on the hair and scalp of Egyptian mummies (2)!
Typically, head lice are spread through head-to-head contact. This is because lice can typically only survive without a human host for one day.
Common forms of head-to-head contact include cuddling, working in close proximity to other people and through playing. The latter is often the case for children who may then pass it to their family.
You may think that hair accessories will also carry lice, however this isn’t necessarily the case. Brushes, combs, and other hair accessories are less likely to transfer lice or eggs as they are hard to detach from the shaft of hair once in place.
They do not spread through linen, clothing, or headwear like hats or helmets as they do not leave the scalp unless moving to another scalp (3).
If you or someone in your family has lice, it’s important to inform anyone who you may have had head-to-head contact with. If only one person in the family has lice, there may be no need to treat anyone else unless they present symptoms (such as itching and scratching) as well (4).
In fact, in Australia, it’s mandated that children with untreated head lice are not allowed to attend school in accordance with the Public Health and Wellbeing Regulations 2009 (5). However, they can head back to the classroom once treatment has commenced.
It’s important to treat your little one’s lice as soon as you become aware of them to help stop the life cycle in its tracks and reduce the likelihood of the pesky parasites being passed on to others.
If you find nits or lice on your child’s scalp, inform their school or childcare centre so that other parents can be informed. And, if you’re on the receiving end of the dreaded nits notice, check your little one’s hair as soon as possible.
As you’re likely already familiar with, typical head lice symptoms include itching and scratching.
This is because the skin on the scalp reacts to the saliva of the louse. But remember that this might not be localised to the scalp. Nits have been known to favour the nape of the neck and skin behind ears, so it’s important to note if itching in this area begins to happen especially if you have been informed of an outbreak involving your child (6,7).
As well as being conscious of the itching, you’ll also need inspect your child’s scalp for live insects as well as eggs. Not all children will scratch when they have nits running amok atop in their hair. So, as soon as you become aware of a potential lice outbreak, it’s time to get investigating.
This is because if your child has live lice, they’re still laying nits and you may not be able to stop the cycle until you get rid of them.
Sometimes, you may be able to see the critters crawling in the hair, although they can be tricky to spot as they move fast! To spot a live louse, you may have to part your child’s hair very quickly while looking.
When looking closely at their hair, you may see small oval-shaped eggs attached to the shaft of the hair close to the scalp. These are the eggs (the nits) and there are two different types to look for:
If you can only see white nits, your little one might not have active infestation as they may be leftover evidence of an old infestation.
When it comes to an individual louse, head lice begin as nits and can take between 7-10 days to hatch. Once hatched, the young larvae take 6-10 days to become an adult and once they’re an adult, they can lay eggs of their own, thus continuing the cycle (8).
Without treatment, this life cycle becomes somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy and the colony of crawling critters may set up shop in your child’s hair indefinitely.
With treatment, you may be able to eradicate the infestation in one foul swoop but this depends on the method utilised and the thoroughness of the treatment. If even just one louse is left untreated, they may hatch new nits and begin the life cycle again.
This is why some treatments may recommend multiple doses, to ensure any stragglers are caught before they have the opportunity to breed further.
It’s important to note that once treatment has commenced, it can be a bit of a waiting game when it comes to returning to a neutral scalp.
Itchiness may not disappear immediately after treatment has finished, and persistent itch without evidence of persistent infestation doesn’t necessarily mean you should repeat the treatment. There could be other reasons why your little one’s scalp is itchy, like dandruff or sweat (9).
The life cycle of a louse moves relatively quickly. So, when eliminating them from your child’s head, it’s important to need to interrupt the reproduction cycle, which usually lasts for about five weeks or 35 days. For a comprehensive understanding of each stage in the life cycle, you can find a detailed stage-by-stage guide here.
Fun fact: female lice are usually larger than males and can lay up to eight nits per day.
To learn more about the life cycle of a louse, you can find more information here.
When facing a bout of lice in your household, you may find yourself springing into action to slow the spread with fierce motivation.
Finding a treatment may be one of the first thoughts that race through your mind after hearing of a lice outbreak or your child complaining about an itchy head. Luckily, there are a few options available that may help you rid your little one’s head of the crawling.
While many traditional treatments (such as those listed below) rely on insecticides to attack the nervous systems of lice, silicon-based products eliminate nits by suffocation.
Dimethicones are silicon oils and are typically colourless and odorless. They are also water repellent. They can be volatile (thinner, vaporise quickly) or viscous (thick in consistency). Commonly, dimethicones are used in medicines, toothpaste and cosmetics and haircare.
When the volatile and viscous dimethicones are combined, they can work together to create a liquid that spreads easily across your child’s hair and scalp.
This means it can deeply penetrate the breathing holes of the lice, and after the thinner dimethicone dissolves, the remaining silicon oil thickens to close the airways and suffocate the insects, larvae and eggs.
As the nits are then deprived of oxygen and are suffocated, it can be a comprehensive method for eradicating the critters at any stage of the life cycle.
Would you like to learn more about how dimethicone is used in some treatments? If so, you can find more information here.
Insecticide treatments are another common method for getting rid of pesky head lice, which attack the nervous system of a louse.
Depending on the treatment, these may have a harsh smell that your child might not be a fan of!
Wet combing is a handy tool you can use once the lice have been killed by another treatment. It can often take in excess of 30 minutes to complete, so your little one may get a little wriggly!
To keep your child entertained and distracted you may like to offer them a book to read, a movie to watch or an activity to complete. Why not download our printable colouring book to keep your them occupied?
Unfortunately, no product or method can prevent lice. However, there are a few steps you can take that may help you and your family avoid the pesky critters.
Alongside tried and tested treatments, there can sometimes be a few convincing myths surrounding nits.
If you’re concerned that your child has lice and aren’t sure what to do next, your first port of call should be a health professional’s advice.
The most common way nits can be transferred is by direct head-to-head contact with another person as and they can only live for a short time away from a host.
Research has also shown lice don’t survive in hats or helmets and there’s generally little risk of them contaminating toys, furniture, or carpets.
Put simply, lice like hair and warm scalps to nestle against. After all, without a human host they can only survive for a short period of time.
So, no matter your child’s age, gender, or how recently they washed their hair, they may be at risk of contracting head lice.
Treating family members who haven’t yet contracted lice won’t prevent them from catching the pesky critters further down the track.
The easiest way to help prevent an infestation is finding the lice early, which may make treatment easier. Check your child’s scalp and hair weekly and encourage older children to put fine-tooth comb through their hair in the shower when they shampoo (12).
Unfortunately, head lice can be an all too common part of childhood. After all, with all the playing, hugging and interacting at school and childcare head-to-head contact is almost bound to happen!
We understand for parents it can be frustrating to treat, but as long as you are armed with the facts and methods of treatment, you should feel a little more equipped to deal with the pesky creatures if they happen to find their way into your household.
If you have any concerns about your child’s potential exposure to head lice or which treatment may be best suited to your family, speak with your health professional.
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