Expert Advice

How to treat head lice

Facts, myths and tips for treatment

Head lice are a common problem with a simple solution
They’re creepy, crawly, itchy and just downright annoying. They’re also an unappealing fact of life for many with kids, so we’ve sorted the facts from the fiction so you can stay ahead of those lousy lice.
The facts
It may be hard to believe but head lice have been around thousands of years before your child went to preschool. These small blood sucking insects, that average around 2 to 4 mm, can cause parents of small children a great deal of grief, but if you know what to look for and how to treat them it can be a mild hurdle that hopefully doesn’t have to be crossed too often.
Head lice vary in colour, from whitish-brown to reddish-brown, and surprisingly only survive on humans. Despite the common misconception that head lice can fly, they are actually wingless insects and do not even have the capacity to jump from head to head. The transmission of head lice can only be made by head to head contact as they can only crawl.
Lice actually like to live on the hair itself and only migrate to the scalp to feed so many head lice do not cause an itch which means that it takes careful inspection to find them. Louse eggs are laid just over a centimetre from the scalp and are about the size of a pin head and are oval in shape. A live egg will actually making a popping noise when squashed by fingernails and hatched eggs look like empty shells. The eggs – or nits –hatch in 7-10 days, and one female louse can lay 150-300 eggs so it doesn’t take long for a few random lice to become a couple of hundred.
Finding the little suckers
Before you run for the clippers and inflict a lifetime of therapy on your child, remember that anyone with even a short length of hair can get head lice. The first step in any parent’s war against head lice is detection and the Victorian Department of Health advises these five simple steps to weed out the nasties:
Step 1
Starting with dry hair gently comb through any conditioner, detangling any knots so you can get a smooth stroke from root to tip. This technique with the conditioner actually stuns the lice and makes it hard for them to grip onto the hair.
Step 2
Using a small tooth comb, brush sections of the hair gently from the roots to the ends.
Step 3
Wipe the conditioner from the comb onto a paper towel or tissue.
Step 4
Look on the tissue and on the comb for lice and eggs.
Step 5
Repeat combing at least four or five times for every section of the head and if lice or eggs are found, the hair should be treated.
How to treat head lice
The treatment of head lice involves removing the lice from the head because once extracted they die very quickly, usually within 24 hours. The main treatment options are chemical, herbal and manual, but if none of these are ideal you may need to use a combination of all three.
Chemical treatments
Most shampoos and lotions found in chemists and supermarkets are actually chemical based treatments, unless otherwise stated. While this method may sound heavy duty and scary NSW Health Department authorities say they’re okay – as long as you don’t use them more than once a week and don’t use them on kids under two.
Herbal treatments
These usually contain ingredients such as tea tree and lavender oil, and many parents claim success with them. Just be aware that tea tree oil can cause skin reactions in some people. It’s important to note that these lice are tricky little pests and no treatment kills all of the eggs so any chemical or herbal method must involve two applications around seven days apart. The first treatment kills all living lice and the second round is to kill the lice that have hatched after the first treatment.
Conditioner and combing techniques
Using the conditioner and comb method every second day until there have been no live lice found for ten days. We know – the fun just never stops, does it?
No product on the market offers preventative protection against lice so “it is important that anti lice treatment is carried out simultaneously in a group of people after a lice-outbreak” according to head lice expert and parasitologist, Heinz Mehlhorn, of Heinrich Heine University in Germany. So, before you go questioning your parenting skills and try to hide any evidence your child has had lice remember that if your child has been affected so have probably many in their realm of contact so tell everyone to check for lice to avoid reinfestation.
Testing resistance
Insecticide resistance is common in head lice treatment so it is important to test if lice are dead. If the treatment is successful hatched lice will be lifeless within 20 minutes and you should treat again in seven days using the same product. However, if the lice are not dead that indicates the lice are resistant to the products active compound and it will be ineffective treating this outbreak. Treat the hair again as soon as possible using a product that contains a different active compound.
Head lice myths
"Head lice only like dirty hair"
They couldn't care less whether hair is clean or dirty - it's blood they're after.
"I have to burn the house down to get rid of lice"
Just concentrate on the head - there is no need to clean the house or the classroom as head lice do not live on furniture, hats, bedding, carpet or anywhere else in the environment. It is only recommended that pillowcases may require washing in hot water (at least 60ºC) or a hot tumble dry.
"Anyone I have ever met now needs a lice treatment"
There is no need to treat the whole family - unless they also have head lice.
"My child will now have to be home schooled"
There is no need to miss the rest of the school term due to lice. Most Australian school departments allow children to return to school the day after a treatment has begun.
"Once I have treated my child they will never get lice again"
Check your child’s head regularly with comb and conditioner. There is no research to prove that chemical or herbal therapies can prevent head lice.

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