Last summer, I discovered that my 5 and 3 year old children both had head lice – I instantly started feeling extremely itchy, rushed to the local pharmacy to buy bucket loads of that ‘special shampoo’ and then spent hours combing and obsessing about them coming back. A week later, they had returned… cue the return of my itching and some research into getting rid of the little blighters.
Nits or head lice are extremely common – they spread round classrooms and nurseries rapidly when children’s heads come into direct contact with each other. They can’t ‘jump’ the gap so you do have to be in direct contact which is why young children, with fewer personal boundaries are much more prone to becoming infested!
Hatched, adult lice can be seen with the naked eye (the size of a sesame seed) and are dark in colour – they come out easily with a nit comb and wet, conditioned hair. The eggs are often much harder to spot – they cling to the hair shaft, are pale in colour and are very stubborn, often not coming out with a comb. The eggs take 7-10 days to hatch, and adult lice can live up to 40 days on the scalp. They are not particularly harmful but do feed on blood from the human scalp to stay alive, sometimes, but not always making the scalp itchy.
If your child has head lice, your local pharmacist is often a very good source of advice. Essentially there are two methods of getting rid of them:
1. Shampoos – there are plenty of head lice shampoos available on the market – they are definitely the most expensive option. You should follow the instructions carefully for each product. The application should be repeated after a week, as shampoos may not kill the unhatched eggs, so lice will continue to hatch even after an application of the product.
2. Wet combing – this method involves washing the hair and applying generous amounts of conditioner to make it easier to remove the eggs. Using a nit comb, comb carefully and thoroughly through each section of hair. Wipe the comb after each pass onto a white tissue to remove lice and eggs. This will need to be repeated again after 7-10 days to remove the lice that have subsequently hatched.
Empty eggs cases (nits) are often difficult to remove as they stick to the hair shaft – they look different to unhatched lice as they are white/pale in colour and usually further from the hair root. There is no need to wash bedding or towels as head lice will not survive away from the human head and transmission is only by direct hair to hair contact!
There are no failsafe ways of preventing your child from getting headlice (other than complete social isolation!). The old wives’ tale of lice only liking clean hair is false so being dirty is not the answer! Tying up long hair and encouraging personal boundaries may help! You can buy hair products containing citronella and tea tree oil to prevent head lice infestations – some people swear by them but there’s no scientific evidence that they are effective.
As for my children, we went on our summer holiday to France the day after I discovered the second round of lice, so I packed my nit comb (at least it doesn’t weigh much!) and bought bucket loads of cheap hair conditioner. We had the joy of evenings spent sipping French wine whilst nit combing our little darlings, and after 3 rounds of combing, they have not been seen again! Writing this blog has made me feel very itchy though… must look out that comb!