boy hairNot only do parents need to navigate the uncertain waters of new school rules and social crowds, back to school jitters and settling in concerns as the new year of education begins in many places in the world.; they also have to deal with unwelcome guests, who creep insidiously into the family home. More likely to be found in heavily populated areas such as suburbia, these tiny terrors have forced their way into polite society and conversations and yet still have the ability to give the calmest and house proud parent a nervous tick. Our uninvited guests are head lice, who hitch a ride on any human head of hair that brushes up close to them. With many misconceptions about them, this article will attempt to identify ways to shorten their stay within your household.

After speaking to many parents within our school, the common consensus is that headlice are more prolific now than they were when we were at school. It would also seem that children attending a rural school would be less likely to come across headlice when compared to the monthly infestations which plague most suburban schools. Many parents with older children wearily informed me that the rest of school life would surround on the lifespan of the louse and fortnightly douses of chemicals. I launched into to setting the record straight on the issue of headlice and would like to share my findings here.

What are head lice?

Head Lice are tiny brown and gray parasites that can cause itching and scratching, especially on areas of the body that are covered with hair, typically the scalp, neck, and behind the ears. They are about 2-3 mm long, with 6 legs, each with a claw at the end.

Who is likely to get head lice?

Head Lice prefer to live in clean and healthy scalps, which flys in the face of the common perception that only dirty or disheveled people will have them. They crawl quickly, but do not hop, jump or fly. Headlice feed on human blood, needing the warmth of a human scalp to live and cannot live for very long away from the scalp.

Primary school age children are the ones mostly likely to have head lice, but anyone who has been close to someone who has head lice could get them. Children are more likely than adults to be close to each other (eg at school or child care) as they often sit close together.

How do head lice spread?

  • Head lice mainly spread through close head-to-head touching.
  • They may be spread through sharing brushes and hats.
  • They are not likely to be spread through bedding, furniture or carpets, as they cannot live and lay eggs away from a warm human scalp.
  • Head Lice will lay their eggs ( thousands within days) at the base of hair follicles. These take up to a week to hatch.
  • Hatched eggs stay stuck to the hair. They are white, flat and usually easy to see and comb out.
  • Head lice will dehydrate when off the head. The rate at which this occurs depends on the amount of water vapour in the air. In an air-conditioned room, head lice will be severely dehydrated after a few hours. When it is wet and raining, head lice may live for 24 hours.

How to treat for Head Lice

Short hair is easier to treat and comb, but cutting long hair is not necessary. Shaving childrens heads is not necessary as it does protect a person from getting head lice and is more likely to attract ridicule.

Firstly, to identify the Head Lice – use a lice comb (purchased from a drug store – it has very fine teeth which capture live lice and comb out eggs) Section hair and carefully comb through under a bright light. Head Lice like to congregate in warm spots around the ears and at the nape of the neck.

Treatments for head lice include maldison, pyrethrins and permethrin.  Many ‘natural’ head lice treatments have chemicals in them that are the same as the treatments meantioned before (many have pyrethrins). From personal experience products which have pure tea tree oil as a main ingredient will act as a natural deterrent. It is up to your family to what to use as each have their benefits and drawbacks.

Ensure you follow the instructions on the box if using packaged treatments and to follow up the treatment in the specified days in order to stop the reinfestation.

Wet-combing may be a better choice if you are concerned about using chemical treatments.  It must be done on alternate days for at least 3 weeks, until there have been no live lice found for two times

The idea is to quickly smother the lice to prevent them from moving and then to remove them by hand before they can mature and lay more eggs.

  1. Apply a large amount of hair conditioner to the hair. A cheap one is OK.
  2. With the conditioner still on the hair, use an ordinary comb to comb the hair and get rid of tangles.
  3. Carefully comb every part of the hair with a fine tooth head lice comb. (You can get this from a chemist or local council). Place the comb flat against the scalp and comb from the scalp towards the tips of the hair.
  4. After each stroke of the head lice comb, wipe the comb with a tissue or kitchen paper towel and look for lice on the tissue.
  5. Comb each section of the hair 4 times.
  6. Keep doing this until all the hair has been combed with the head lice comb.
  7. Wash the conditioner out of the hair (having a shower may be an easy way to do this).
  8. Wash combs in hot water with a few drops of pure tea tree oil.
  9. Another option is to apply large amounts of cheap hair condition, allow to set in the hair ( 10 mins or so) and then comb and blow dry with heat as high as the child can stand. From all accounts this kills the eggs and stops the cycle.

What other precautions can I take?

  • Check all family members. They may have lice without itching. Ensure when treating the children – all family members are treated at the same time.
  • Do other things which may stop children catching them again from other children. Plait long hair or tying it back tightly, Ensure  children do not share hats and brushes, and tell them how Head Lice are spread.
  • Make a mixture of tea tree oil ( a few drops) in a spray bottle and spray onto hair and into hats each morning.
  • Dip brushes and combs into a stronger mixture of tea tree oil and water every day.

Do I need to spring clean the whole house?

Definately not! Head lice die if they leave the head as they feed from sucking blood from the easy to access scalp. Other parts of the body are too tough. Any live lice will be killed by heat. So washing in normal hot water, or putting bedding etc. into a hot tumble dryer, or ironing clothing or bedding will kill them and their eggs.  A small number of lice do move down to pillow slips at night. So change the pillow slip when you are treating your child, or heat it up (hot wash, iron, hot dryer) to kill any which may have escaped.

Using chemical warfare may be quicker and in ways easier, but this may lead to lice reinfestation if not followed up or repeated usage. The more natural way is time consuming and frustrating, especially for younger children. A clear understanding of the life cycle of headlice and their survival needs will equip you with ways in which to battle these unwanted guests in the manner which suits your family. Focus your main efforts on the head and breaking the life cycle, not on the environment – as has been done in the past.

Image courtesy chefranden

Annie describes herself as a Thaumaturg (what mother isn’t?) juggling writing and fingerpainting in a typical day. Just writing this article is making her want to scratch…..She is completely passionate about community involvement and sees it as a way to world peace. Catch her growing amount of websites and blogs.