The head louse is also known as 'pediculus humanus capitis'. It is a parasitic insect which lives and breeds in human hair feeding on human blood sucked from the scalp. Lice and 'nits', which are head lice eggs, tend to congregate around the nape of the neck and behind the ears. They can usually be detected by close inspection of the hair and scalp. The lice are grey in colour and measure up to 3mm in length. The nits are about the size of a pinhead, they are semi-transparent and white in colour. They are usually attached to the base of the hair. Bites from the lice can cause an allergic reaction which can cause itching and inflammation. Prolonged scratching can cause sores and infection. The lice moving around in the hair close to the scalp can cause a tickling sensation.

The condition affects more children than it does adults and more females than it does males. Although many people believe that head lice only affect those with poor hygiene, they actually prefer to invade clean hair and scalps.

How Head Lice Are Spread

Head lice are spread by direct head to head contact. During close contact the lice use their six legs to walk across from one head to another. They cannot fly or jump.

Avoiding Head Lice

All children should be regularly checked for head lice (weekly if possible). You can do this at home using the 'wet combing method'.It is a good idea to tie back children's hair if it is long while they are at school. This will reduce the chance of their hair coming into contact with the hair of an infected child.

Children with head lice do not need to stay away from school.

Treatment

One way to treat head lice is to use the 'wet combing method', also known as the 'bug busting technique'. For this method to be successful, it must be carefully and strictly followed. The technique can be carried out as follows:

First, wash and rinse the hair.Apply a normal hair conditioner.Leave the conditioner in the hair and while the hair is still wet, comb it over a white sheet of paper using a fine-toothed comb for 10-20 minutes. If there are any nits or lice in the hair, you should be able to see and remove them during this process.Rinse the comb after each stroke.Rinse the conditioner out of the hair and dry the hair as normal. Repeat the whole procedure every three days for at least two weeks.

There are also many chemical treatments available to get rid of head lice. Some are only available on prescription and others can be bought over the counter at most good pharmacies. These treatments usually contain either malathion, carbaryl, permethrin or phenothrin and are available in lotions, liquids, cream rinses and shampoos. Despite the recommendations of some manufacturers, the treatments should remain on the hair for a minimum of twelve hours for them to work effectively. Most people prefer to carry out the treatment overnight. Shampoos are not generally recommended because the active ingredient becomes diluted when lathered with water, making it less effective. Also, shampoos do not stay in contact with the hair long enough to kill the lice. These products should be re-applied seven days after the initial treatment. This will prevent any lice emerging from eggs that may have survived the first application.Other members of the household and other close contacts should be checked for lice but only treated if lice are found.Lice can develop resistance to head lice treatments therefore some local health authorities operate a treatment policy whereby if one course of treatment fails to get rid of the lice, a different insecticide is used for the next course. Health professionals in your area should be aware of which treatments should be used.

Certain head lice treatments are water-based and others are alcohol-based. Alcohol-based products may cause problems with people suffering from eczema and can give off fumes and are not therefore recommended for people with asthma.

Other Advice

It is a good idea to machine wash any clothing, head gear, towels and bed linen that the infected person has been in contact with prior to treatment. Use a hot water cycle if possible or have any unwashable items dry cleaned.Soak hair brushes and combs for an hour in alcohol or wash with soap and hot water.

Vacuum the floor and furniture.

When To See A Doctor

If you are a pregnant woman and you develop head lice or if you have a child under two years of age who has head lice, go and see your doctor.

Anyone who has not responded to treatment should also see a doctor.

Additional Information

For more information about head lice, ask a pharmacist or health professional.