Heads up on headlice

Mum looking for lice in daughter's hair
Nurse Consultant Christine Brown shares her advice on how to get rid of headlice – and stop the little beasts coming back.
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What are headlice and how do you get them?

Headlice are not harmful but they do itch: they are wingless, six-legged insects that feed on blood in the scalp. Newly hatched, they are grey-brown and the size of a pinhead. In 10 days they grow to size of a sesame seed and can then reproduce. Eggs (nits) are translucent greyish specks and take seven days to hatch. Numbers grow quickly without treatment.

Headlice are spread only from direct head to head contact with someone who has them. A long-term infestation can have similar symptoms to low-grade flu.

Around 1 in 8 primary school children have head lice at any one time.

Spotting head lice

Checking your family’s hair regularly is essential. Use a good quality, plastic detection comb with rigid teeth no more than 0.3mm apart, rather than your fingers.

Check freshly-washed hair, as lice become inactive in water, and a conditioner can ease combing. Distract your child with a book or TV. Check the back of the neck, top of the head, under the fringe, behind the ears and close to the scalp.

Empty shells stay glued to the hair, standing out as white oval specks. Only seek treatment if you find live insects, not empty eggs shells.

Treating headlice

‘Nit nurses’ no longer exist. Parents must take charge and check all their family’s hair on a regular basis, seeking immediate treatment if lice are found.

One kind of treatment is to use a pesticide lotion or liquids. Follow directions very carefully and do not use more than three times in a row. Unfortunately, these can be ineffective as lice have built up a resistance to many and some parents are reluctant to expose their children to insecticides.

Lice have not built up a resistance to non–pesticide treatments. One example is Hedrin 4%, which uses odourless silicone to coat lice, effectively smothering them. Silicones do not produce fumes or get absorbed by the skin so can be used by asthmatics and on young children.

The other option is to use wet combing to remove lice by hand. This takes patience and needs to be done twice a week for at least a fortnight; it's also easy to miss a few.