Head lice – yuck – the very name conjures up feelings of itching and discomfort. I detest parasites – well don’t we all – but when they infest our kids….
What are head lice?
I have early memories of my mother washing my hair with a smelly shampoo, combing it with a fine-toothed metal comb, and destroying eggs between her finger-nails – I had hair lice. She was none too pleased, and I was warned to keep away from certain kids…
Head lice are tiny insects that settle adjacent to the scalp for warmth. Head lice (Pediculus capitis) are parasitic insects existing mostly on the scalp and neck hairs of human host.
Their six legs have evolved to grasp hairs. Head lice have even been found on prehistoric mummies. The presence of head lice does not suggest a lack of hygiene by their host. Head lice are primarily acquired by direct head-to-head contact with an infested person’s hair, but may be transferred from shared combs and hats. They may also linger on bedding or furniture for a brief period.
Small comfort I know, but human head lice cannot live on other animals or be caught from others animal – so you can’t catch them from the scratching dog. Head lice feed by biting the scalp and sucking blood… fair makes you squirm doesn’t it.
- Converse to widespread opinion head lice cannot jump or fly. Head lice crawl.
- Head lice infection can only come about from head to head contact lasting one minute or longer.
- Contrary to popular belief, head lice are rarely caught in schools, and only about 10% of infections are thought to occur that way.
- 50% of people infected with head lice are actually adult and pre-school children.
Members of the family and intimate friends are the most common source of infection of head lice. Consequently, the check list should involve all close family, any adults or children living in the same building, in fact anyone having interaction with the patient.
The itching that may accompany an infestation of head lice is due to a reaction to louse saliva. Sometimes it might take months before a youngster’s scalp becomes sensitive to it, and most adults have no reaction. All of this means they may not realise they have an infection.
Treatment of head lice
- Be cautious about using ‘alternative’ treatments for head lice, like mayonaise, vaseline, olive oil or Tea tree oil. Although they are ‘natural’ treatments, they are unproven and have undergone no medical checks to see what long term effect they have.
- It is best to comb the hair twice a day using a fine toothed comb. Good quality hair conditioner is an aid to combing, and has the advantage that head lice have more of a problem cohering to conditioned hair. The action of combing damages head lice and they cannot breed and will eventually die off.
- Detector combs are available from pharmacies. It is sensible to check at least once a week for head lice by using a detector comb and combing the hair all the way forward from the nape of the neck. Any head lice it passes over will become attached to the comb and alert you to the problem.
- Head lice infestation should be remedied with proprietry lotion and allowed to dry naturally.
- Be aware that chlorine in swimming pools may reduce the effectiveness of some lotions.
- After treatment, whilst the hair is damp, a fine toothed comb may be used to get rid of dead eggs.
- To reduce the risk of re-infestation of head lice, you should use a high temperature wash for all clothing that has been in contact with the head, such as bed-linen or hats.
- For a while after treatment has stopped, comb damp hair each day with a detector comb to remove any late developing head lice emerging from eggs.
If anyone in close contact has been infected by head lice but not received treatment, the predicament can become a recurring one that is difficult to stop. Every single person in the immediate circle needs to eradicate head lice to get rid of the problem.
So my advice is – get combing…. get rid….