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Headlice myths busted

Boy being treated for headlice
From playground gossip to ill-informed parents, there are a lot of false beliefs about headlice out there. It's time to set the record straight!

Catching headlice is a childhood rite of passage. The vast majority of us will have to tackle an infestation at some point during our child's primary school years, but old wives' tales abound about everything from how they're transmitted to what sort of hair they like best.

We've sorted the headlice facts from the fiction, so you're best equipped to tackle the little blighters.

Headlice facts and fiction

Myth: Headlice prefer clean hair.

Fact: Headlice don’t care when you last washed your hair. This myth was probably started as a way of making children feel less upset and embarrassed about having headlice, but the truth is they'll happily move in whether hair is clean or dirty, and they can't be washed out using regular shampoo.

Myth: Headlice jump from one scalp to another.

Fact: They can’t jump, fly or swim, and only spread from direct head-to-head contact. That said, they're surprisingly speedy, capable of crawling 23cm in a minute, which explains how they can spread like wildfire through the primary school classroom.

Myth: You can get them from hairbrushes, towels or bedding.

Fact: Off the scalp, lice die very quickly indeed, so while it's sensible not to share hairbrushes, combs or accessories if your child has headlice, there's no need to wash their bedding, towels or soft toys.

Myth: If your child has headlice, their head will be itchy.

Fact: Not always. The itching is usually caused by irritation from the lice biting the scalp (sorry!), rather than the lice themselves, and it's thought that fewer than 50 per cent of people with headlice experience itching. That's why it's important to make checking your child's hair a part of your routine.

Myth: Your child will be checked for headlice at school.

Fact: So-called 'nit nurses' no longer go into schools to check children's heads, as routine inspections didn't result in a measurable reduction in outbreaks. It's your responsibility as a parent to check your child regularly.

Myth: Your child's school will send a letter home if there's an outbreak of headlice in their class.

Fact: The current advice is not to send out class-wide or school-wide letters, as this tends to cause panic and results in parents treating their children unnecessarily. If a member of staff spots headlice on your own child, however, they should let you know discreetly at the end of the day.

Myth: Your child should be kept off school if they have headlice.

Fact: Headlice are a nuisance, but they're not defined as a risk to public health, so there’s no reason to keep your child away from school as long as you're treating the outbreak, either by combing or using a treatment lotion or spray. However, it's sensible to tell their teacher if they have headlice so they can be aware.

Myth: You have to use chemical products to get rid of headlice. 

Fact: Research shows that up to 98 per cent of headlice are resistant to traditional insecticide treatment, so these treatments are no longer recommended. Instead, you should use a non-pesticidal treatment, such as those containing dimeticone; these smother the lice rather than attempting to poision them. You can also remove them by careful regular combing. 

Myth: If one person in your household has headlice, you should treat everyone.

Fact: Because headlice are so contagious, it's vital to check everyone in your family if one person has headlice – but there's no need to treat them unless you find a live louse on their head. This is because treatments only kill live headlice; they can't prevent you from catching them.

Myth: Cutting hair short will get rid of headlice.

Fact: Lice can live in really short hair (as little as 1cm long), so chopping off your own or your child’s hair should not be seen as a treatment option. But because lice spread by head-to-head contact, it's sensible to keep your child's hair tied up neatly for school if they have long or afro hair; this makes it harder for the lice to latch onto the hair shaft.

Myth: You can catch headlice from pets.

Fact: Human head lice live on humans only, so there's no chance of catching them from or passing them to your pet.

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