Head lice are tiny insects that live in human hair. They are common, particularly in children and they can usually be cleared with treatment. About one in ten children in the UK, around one million, may have head lice at any one time.
Head lice are tiny grey-brown insects, the size of a pinhead when hatched and of a sesame seed when fully grown. They cannot fly or jump and hate swimming. Head lice are spread by head-to-head contact, climbing from the hair of an infected person to the hair of someone else.
A head lice infestation is not the result of dirty hair or poor hygiene. Although common in children, head lice can affect anyone of any age and can affect all types of hair, long or short. They can only affect humans and cannot be passed on to animals or be caught from them. And once away from hair they soon die, and do not live in clothes or bedding.
Many people with head lice do not have any symptoms and an itchy scalp only occurs in some cases. This is due to an allergy to the lice, not due to their biting as often believed. Head lice do not wash off with normal shampoo and do not cause any other medical problems.
Head lice are difficult to find just by looking. If you suspect that your child (or yourself) has head lice, it is best to do detection combing and some people advise that you do this to children's hair regularly, about once a week.
Detection combing involves using a special fine-toothed head lice comb (with tooth spacing of less than 0.3mm to trap the smallest lice) to comb through the hair. It works better on wet hair but can be used on dry hair. Detection combs are available from pharmacies.
Detection combing will take 5-15 minutes to check each head, depending on hair length and thickness.
- Firstly wash the hair in the normal way with ordinary shampoo, rinse and apply lots of ordinary conditioner.
- Comb the hair with a normal comb to get rid of tangles.
- When the hair is untangled switch to a detection comb.
- Slot the teeth of the detection comb into the hair at the roots so it is touching the scalp.
- Draw the detection comb through to the tips of the hair.
- Make sure that all parts of the hair are combed by working around the head.
- Check the comb for lice after each stroke using a magnifying glass to spot any lice.
- If you see any lice, clean the comb by rinsing it under a tap before the next stroke.
- After the whole head has been combed, rinse out the conditioner.
- Repeat the combing procedure in the wet hair to check for any lice that might have been missed the first time.
Using medicated lotion is an alternative method of treatment. However, no medicated treatment is 100% effective. Your pharmacist will be able to recommend an over-the-counter lotion.
Ensure you purchase enough lotion to treat everyone in your family who is affected. Use enough to coat the scalp and the full length of the hair. The normal advice is to treat the hair and repeat the treatment after seven days - a minimum of two applications are needed to kill lice over the hatching period because the lotions do not always kill the eggs.
Always seek the advice of a healthcare professional before using medicated head lice lotions, especially on young babies, pregnant women and people with asthma or allergies.
What about family and friends?
All people in the same home and other close head-to-head contacts of the previous 4-6 weeks should look for lice and treat if necessary. All people in the same home should be treated at the same time as this stops lice being passed around again. Children with head lice should carry on going to school. Contrary to popular belief, head lice do not spread quickly through schools.
Can head lice be prevented?
There is no good way of preventing head lice. If you do detection combing of children's hair every week or so, you will detect head lice soon after they have affected the hair. You can then start treatment quickly and reduce the risk of passing them on to others.
Further information for parents on Bug Busting for home, schools and the wider community can be found here: www.chc.org/index.cfm