Dr Phil Kieran says head lice is incredibly common among school children and offers practical advice on how to remove the crawlers with easy treatments.
The first time we got a note home from school about an outbreak of head lice in the class I shuddered.
My son had at the time a huge mop of curly hair and the prospect of searching through it was daunting to say the least.
Head lice are incredibly common and most of us have had experience with them in the past.
I certainly have strong memories of standing in the kitchen, eyes streaming while strong smelling lotion was rubbed into my hair.
What is it?
Head lice are small insects, which live in the hair and survive by drinking blood from the scalp.
They spread by direct contact so although they can’t jump from head to head they do move across very easily when kids put their heads together or when they share hats/coats/jumpers etc.
How to spot it?
You may notice your child is scratching their head more than usual or say their head is itchy.
But sometimes the first hint you will have is when you see them crawling around in the hair itself.
If you do see this it is important to check the whole family, as it is very common for this to spread to the household before anyone knows they have it.
The best way to look for lice is to use a lice comb, which can be bought in most pharmacies.
This is a fine-toothed comb, which will comb through the hair and remove any holding onto the hairs and also any eggs present (nits).
If you do this over a sheet of paper it is much easier to spot them as they fall out.
Is it contagious?
Head lice spread easily amongst children, as they tend to put their heads together a lot and share clothes.
However, it can spread among household contacts too so make sure to check/treat everyone.
If your child has head lice there is no need to keep them out of school but do inform the teacher so that the rest of the students can be informed and treated before it spreads.
What to do next?
Treatment comes in a number of forms and each has pros and cons.
This is handy for people who would prefer to use a more natural treatment but unfortunately is not nearly as effective as the above options and hasn’t been studied in formal clinical trials.
So if you choose this option it is important to combine it with physical removal of the lice/nits.
Myths about head lice
1. Lice prefer clean hair/Lice prefer dirty hair: Lice don’t seem to have a preference as to what type of hair they move to or from. They are definitely not a sign of poor hygiene.
There is some evidence that certain hair types particularly dense curls or thicker individual hairs can make it more difficult for lice to grip and establish themselves but this has not been seen consistently in any studies to date.
2. You only catch head lice in school: While school is a common place to catch head lice, they can be transmitted anywhere that there is the potential for head to head contact.
Playgrounds and during sports are very common places for infestations to spread also.
3. Lice can fly/hop/jump between people: They can’t. Lice are crawling insects.
They can move at a surprising speed but they aren’t superman, able to leap tall people in a single bound.
They don’t need much physical contact to move person to person but they can’t manage without it.
4. You need to use pesticides to treat them: Repeated combing of wet hair with a lice removal comb does definitely work.
It requires persistence and patience if you are using this alone and the combing can be kind of sore (yet more childhood memories coming rushing back…).
Treatments with mayonnaise, for example, should definitely be combined with diligent wet combing and repetition.
5. Special brushes can clear it quicker: I see a lot of “modern” improvements to head lice brushes such as those that blow hot air while your comb to dehydrate the lice to one that is battery operated and says it electrocutes the lice.
There is absolutely no evidence that these are anything more than more expensive options that do the same job.
If your child has lice my advice is to get treating it early and keep looking back over it to make sure it’s cleared.
Most likely this will be something your child gets a few times and you will be an expert at clearing it in no time.
There is no need to keep your kid out of school for this and to answer a question I was surprised to be asked by a parent about their daughter: No. You don’t need to shave their head to clear it.