As I write this I am involuntarily scratching my head - it’s hard not to be a little freaked out by head lice, and the thought of them makes most parents cringe. In fact I know one mum that flipped out so much when her children came home with it that she had all the carpets steam cleaned, had all the doonas and blankets dry cleaned and got a professional service in to industrially clean all the mattresses.
She even shaved her little boy's head. Luckily her two girls were spared the clippers! It may all seem a bit dramatic (and neurotic), but it just goes to show that head lice is a bit of an icky topic.
And yet it’s really common, and seems to be doing the rounds with glee at daycare centres, preschools and primary schools alike.
Head lice are actually just very small insects. They live (and breed and feed) on the scalp and lay eggs (nits) on the hair, causing an itchy scalp. The good news is that medicated treatments to kill lice and nits are readily available and highly effective.
Despite how traumatised the parent (and child) may be by insects crawling through their hair, they can be reassured that head lice are really common in children and their families and that they don’t carry or transmit disease of any sort. The lice move from head to head with gay abandon, so incidents of head lice spread rapidly – especially in school settings.
But contrary to popular belief they don’t actually jump from head to head, and they don’t have wings to fly – they simply spread by crawling.
People get head lice from direct head-to-head contact with another person who has head lice. This can occur when people hug, play together or work closely together.
Not surprisingly, head lice are most common among children and their families. If anyone has head lice it’s essential that they tell anyone they’ve had head-to-head contact with so that they can check and treat their family.
It’s important to note that only infected people need to be treated – there’s no need to treat the whole family, unless they all have head lice.
What do they look like?
An itchy scalp is a surefire indication that a child may have lice, and a closer look will easily reveal their presence – but, half of the people who have head lice never scratch their head, so waiting for itching is not a reliable sign.
The female louse lays eggs which resemble dandruff (but can’t be brushed off). The lice themselves can be tricky to spot as they are small and move really quickly.
The easiest way to find head lice is using conditioner and a comb. Conditioner should be combed onto dry hair (the conditioner makes it hard for the lice to run around or grip onto the hair). After combing through a section, the comb should be wiped onto a tissue, which can then be inspected for lice and eggs.
If lice or eggs are found, the person should be treated.
There are two preferred methods for treating head lice – the conditioner and comb method (mentioned above for finding lice) and using an insecticide. When doing the conditioner and comb method, each section of hair needs to be combed, and the whole process needs to be repeated several times. This will need to be done every second day until no live lice have been found for 10 days.
Insecticides usually come as lotions (to use on dry hair) or shampoos. It’s worth noting that no insecticide treatment will kill 100% of the eggs, so the treatment will need to be done in 2 applications, with the second application done 7days after the first.
Let customers know that head lice products must be applied to all parts of the hair (as head lice live in the hair and go to the scalp to feed). It’s also worth noting that the itchiness may not disappear straight away, but this doesn’t mean the treatment hasn’t worked.
After using an insecticide, the customer will need to check that the lice are dead – if they’re not dead within 20 minutes then the treatment hasn’t worked. This is due to insecticide resistance, which means the lice are resistant to the product, and more specifically, the active compound in the product. A product with a different active compound will then need to be used.
Pharmacy assistants need to be aware that head lice treatments may not be suitable for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, or babies under the age of one. Similarly, people who have asthma or allergies may not be able to use these products. If in doubt, refer the customer to the pharmacist.
Despite an overwhelming desire to douse the house (or classroom) in bleach or burn the bedclothes, there is no evidence to suggest that any extra cleaning or washing is necessary to get rid of lice.
Simply concentrate on treating the affected person's head. Sheets and blankets don’t need to be washed, however the pillowcase does. Washing in hot water or placing in the clothes dryer for 10 minutes will do the trick.
by Sunny de Bruyn