Everything you need to know about head lice

Although head lice may be a nuisance, they don't cause serious illness, carry any diseases, and can be treated at home.

With kids back in school, you may soon find yourself dealing with lice in your child’s beautiful locks.

While lice are a nuisance, the good news is that they do not transmit viruses or bacteria that can make you or your child sick. You can treat head lice at home and rid your family of these unwanted visitors with a little know-how and the right products.

What exactly are head lice?

Head lice are tiny, wingless insects that live on the human scalp and feed on their hosts’ blood (yuck!). A single bug is referred to as a louse, while multiple bugs are referred to as lice.

What causes lice to appear?

Despite popular belief, lice are not caused by poor hygiene. In fact, head lice prefer clean hair because it allows them to attach and lay their eggs more easily. They also cannot fly or jump, so they must spread by crawling.

“Head lice are mostly spread from person to person through direct head-to-head or hair-to-hair contact, or occasionally through sharing of [objects that touch the head],” says Dr Albert Yan, a paediatrics and dermatology professor. Yan claims that this can happen when children are napping or playing together.

What are the symptoms of head lice?

The appearance of lice will vary depending on where they are in their lifecycle. Adult lice have pointed bodies and are about the size of a small ant. Head lice come in various colours, from tan to grayish-white, and different shades appear on different hair types. The same is true for nits, which are slightly smaller than a sesame seed and stick to individual hairs.

What are the signs and symptoms of head lice?

Lice bites, which appear as small red bumps on the head, neck, and shoulders, are one of the symptoms of lice. Lice bites are frequently itchy, which is why head-scratching is one of the most common symptoms of lice in children (although an infestation can be present for 4 to 6 weeks before the itching starts). It is possible to have lice without itching, in which case a head check is recommended.

How to examine your child for lice

If you suspect your child has lice (or if you have received a lice notice from their school), you should inspect their hair. While brushing, you may notice bugs moving around, but they can also be difficult to spot. Nits are more likely to be found along the hair shaft, especially around the ears and nape of the neck. Part your child’s hair in sections and work your way from one side to the other, front to back.

How to tell the difference between lice and dandruff

Because lice and dandruff can both cause itchy scalps, it’s critical to distinguish between the two before beginning treatment. Unlike lice, which lay their eggs on the hair shaft, dandruff appears mostly on the scalp before flaking and falling off. Lice and nits are more oblong and pointed in shape than dandruff flakes, which resemble flakes.

Hair casts, which are elongated cylindrical dandruff pieces that encase a hair shaft, are easily confused with nits, but nits are oval in shape and much more difficult to remove.

Which lice treatments are effective?

Experts recommend washing your child’s hair with shampoos designed to kill lice. These products are most commonly available over the counter at pharmacies.

Because many products don’t kill lice eggs, a second application at the proper intervals according to the manufacturer’s guidelines may be required. Manual removal of eggs with a special lice comb after treatment is recommended

Can you prevent head lice?

While you’re unlikely to prevent head lice entirely, you can lessen your child’s chances of catching it by encouraging them not to share things that come in contact with the head such as combs, hats, hair accessories and pillows. Regular checks are the best way to detect and treat an infestation early, before it spreads to others.

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