What are they?
Head lice are tiny wingless insects that live on human heads and feed on human blood. They live close to and lay their eggs (nits) near the scalp, as they need the warmth to survive.
A female louse will start laying eggs around two weeks after hatching and can lay between three to eight eggs per day. As such, a head lice infestation can soon become overwhelming.
Head lice do not spread diseases, but their bite is very itchy and children with a head lice infestation may need to scratch their head often. Head lice are very easy to catch.
Who gets them?
Head lice are transmitted through crawling from one head to another; as such anyone can be affected. Catching head lice does tend to peak during the primary school years though, due to the nature of young children playing together closely.
If your child has head lice then other family members are likely to get them as well.
Head lice can be spread through shared hairbrushes and hats but as the insects cannot survive for very long away from a warm human scalp, the chances of contracting them through any means other than direct head-to-head contact is very low.
What are the symptoms?
Around half of all people who have head lice will show no symptoms at all! The most likely symptom will be an itchy scalp.
Headlice can be difficult to spot as they move quickly, so the most reliable way to check for an infestation is to look carefully near the scalp for the eggs (nits). Nits are small white eggs, which resemble dandruff. They are very difficult to remove though as they are firmly stuck to the hair. The Victorian Department of Health recommends the following steps to find headlice:
Step 1 - Comb any type of hair conditioner on to dry, brushed (detangled) hair. This stuns the lice and makes it difficult for them to grip the hair or crawl around.
Step 2 - Then comb sections of the hair with a fine tooth, head lice comb.
Step 3 - Wipe the conditioner from the comb onto a paper towel or tissue.
Step 4 - Look on the tissue and on the comb for lice and eggs.
Step 5 - Repeat the combing for every part of the head at least four or five times
What is the treatment?
There are numerous different products marketed for removing headlice. Broadly, though, there are two main options:
- Use an over-the-counter lotion or shampoo, twice within 7 days. Talk to your pharmacist about which type of product you should try. Headlice can be resistant to some products so you may need to try more than one type of compound. Do not use over-the-counter products on children under one year of age, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Repeat the comb and conditioner method described under “symptoms” every two days until no live lice have been found for 10 days.
If head lice are found, your child may be sent home from school or daycare, however once they have had a treatment through their hair that kills the lice, there is no reason for them not to return.
The Victorian Department of Health: Headlice factsheet
Women and Children’s Health Network