Head lice are a real bug bear for families with young children. In finding out how kids catch them, Sam Agars dispels some myths.
We’ve all been there. Little Lorna comes home from school with head lice and the whole weekend is ruined. Mother has to cancel her hair appointment in town and go through the cringing embarrassment of explaining why to the swanky receptionist. Big brother Mat has to turn down a ‘tween date’ and, instead of rising above it, blames and shames his sobbing CRAWLING sister. Dad, meanwhile, heads back into work on Monday only to infest the whole management team. Although he doesn’t confess to being the carrier, a few weeks later, as penance, he shaves his head.
But why all the angst? The reality is that there is nothing much parents can do to prevent kids getting head lice. According to Dr Douglas Kwan of Discovery Bay’s Island Health Family Practice, personal hygiene or cleanliness either at home or in school have nothing to do with it. Importantly too, pets do not play a role in the spread of head lice.
Going head to head
There are three forms of head lice – the egg (also named a nit, hence the schoolyard term), the nymph and the adult. The eggs are laid by the adult female and take about a week to hatch, while lice can live on a person’s head for up to 30 days.
Lice are most commonly found on the scalp, behind the ears and on the back of the neck and they feed on human blood several times a day. For that reason, they die within two days of being separated from their ‘host’.
Head lice move by crawling but they cannot hop or fly. Their feet are specially adapted to holding onto human h a i r , so they have difficulty attaching to smooth or slippery surfaces, like plastic or metal. It is possible, thought uncommon, to get lice by lying on a bed, couch, pillow, or carpet that has recently been in contact with an infested person.
Equally, head lice are unlikely to be spread by the water in a swimming pool, though they can survive under water for several hours.
“All the evidence shows that direct head-to-head contact is the main reason people catch the lice,” Dr Kwan reasons. “Obviously children are more at risk because they have more head-to-head contacts either at school, at home, at play, or at sleepovers.
“Although theoretically lice can occur by sharing combs, scarves and hats, it is generally not very common,” Dr Kwan adds. “This is because lice don’t survive very long outside the human body.”
Dr Kwan is also quick to dispel the myths that DB kids are susceptible to catching head lice from the ferry seats and that lice prefer clean hair: “There is no evidence of this,” he says.
Detection and cure
Children aged six to eight are most likely to contract lice and, more broadly, lice are common in children from three to 12 years. While most children will experience itchiness or a rash because of sensitivity to the saliva or faeces of the lice, it can often be some time before they become aware that they actually have an infestation. A handy hint for parents is to keep an eye on children’s pillows, since the little black dots of lice faeces are often visible.
“We advise parents to regularly groom and check,” Dr Kwan says. “Some people recommend once a week but in reality that is probably not practical, so I think once every two to three weeks is reasonable. Of course, if there are episodes occurring in your school you should check more regularly.”
While the use of tea tree oil, eucalyptus oil, petroleum jelly and even mayonnaise have been touted as potential cures for lice, Dr Kwan prefers to go with the more tried- and-true methods. One of these is to use a prescription shampoo, although Dr Kwan recommends the wet-combing method.
“Wet-combing is probably most widely practised,” he says. “It takes quite a lot of time and effort on the part of the parent, depending on the child maybe up to 30 minutes. You need a specialised nit comb with very small, fine teeth.”
This method involves first washing the hair then applying a generous amount of conditioner, before brushing the hair with an ordinary comb to remove tangles. You then divide the hair into sections and comb it through with the nit comb, before washing off the conditioner and repeating the process.
“We advise parents to do that twice a week and you need to have a clear comb on three occasions before you declare you are treated,” Dr Kwan says. “It is also important to do the same thing with other members of the family to make sure they are not infested as well.”