Head lice are a common problem, especially in school children aged 4 to 11. They are tiny insects that live in hair and can stay living in the hair for a long time if not treated. Some patients find them particularly troublesome and irritating to deal with. Nits are the empty egg cases attached to the hair that the lice hatch from.
How is it spread?
Head lice are spread through direct head-to-head contact and they climb from one person’s hair into another person’s hair.
- They are not caught from animals and cannot fly, jump or swim.
- They are unlikely to be spread by objects like hats, pillows or combs.
- The lice also do not have a preference for dirty, clean, short or long hair.
Spotting the problem
Even when you closely inspect the head, head lice can be difficult to spot. They range from the size of a pinhead to around the size of a sesame seed. The only way to be sure that someone does have head lice is finding a live louse by combing the hair with a special fine-toothed comb. This is called detection combing. There are other less-reliable signs, such as small white eggs or nits in the hair, which can be behind the ears or at the back of the neck. Other signs include an itchy scalp or rash on the back of your neck.
How do I treat the problem?
Treatments are available from pharmacies:
- Physical insecticides: Two treatments kill the head lice when used seven days apart to kill lice which may have hatched following the initial treatment.
- Chemical insecticides: These treatments use chemicals to kill the louse and eggs.
- Wet combing: Head lice and eggs are removed from the hair using a fine-toothed metal comb. These treatments are relatively inexpensive, although combing needs to be repeated several times and done thoroughly. This can be time-consuming.
A pharmacist can advise you about which treatments are suitable for you or your child. Make sure you follow the instructions that come with your chosen treatment very carefully.
How do I prevent head lice?
- Preventing head lice is very difficult. You may want to consider detection combing, perhaps on a weekly basis for example, if you are very concerned.
- Using lotions and sprays does not prevent head lice. These treatments should only be used if a live louse has been found in the hair.
- Washing clothing and bedding on a hot wash or staying off work or school is not necessary. This is is unlikely to help stop the lice from spreading.
You can have a listen to our pharmacist Ian Findlay talking to Hiblio.TV about head lice and how to deal with them.