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Dealing with head lice in children: Tips for parents

Head lice are bothersome for both parents and kids, but they are not dangerous to your child and do not spread disease.

For thousands of schoolchildren – and their parents – the threat of lice infestation looms large in summer. The bad news is that reports of head lice in South African children have anecdotally increased following the withdrawal of a number of anti-lice preparations.

What are head lice?

Head lice are tiny insects that feed on human scalp blood. Head lice can crawl but not jump or fly. Transmission of a head louse from one child to another is frequently accomplished by direct head-to-head contact, which occurs frequently within a family or among children who have close contact at school or play, as well as hats, towels, brushes and pillows. A study by PubMed Central, a US-based medical archive, indicates that up to 58% of all children in Africa will contract lice at some stage. The figure is similar in Asia at 59%, and in Europe, it is 22,4%.

Are anti-lice shampoos effective?

Anti-lice shampoos are the most effective treatment, but many have serious side- effects due to poisonous ingredients, particularly the chemical Gamma Benzene Hexachloride (GBH), also known as Lindane and Kwell. These chemicals can be harmful if used incorrectly.

What about home remedies?

Tea tree oil is also promoted as a treatment for lice, but has a high potential for allergic reactions, especially in children. The Food & Drug Administration in the US has recommended against its use. Other home remedies such as vinegar, olive oil or mayonnaise have also been disproved.

Treatment protocol

The following is a basic protocol, should your child contract head lice:

  • On discovering head lice, wash your child’s hair with non-toxic, nature-based shampoo.
  • Use a lice comb to extract the remaining lice and nits.
  • After administering the shampoo, use a nature-based preventative spray to further deter any remaining lice, and to protect your child’s hair from further infestation.
  • If possible, keep your child out of school, but all parents need to inform their children’s schools and/or other parents to help prevent further infestation.
  • A second treatment after 10 days is recommended as lice eggs require nine days to hatch, and a third treatment can be performed after five days.
  • Try to avoid contact between your child and playmates for at least 10 days to avoid spreading the lice.
  • Lice can become resistant to chemical products. It is much harder for lice to become resistant to natural products.

Good to know

No methods are 100% effective for the treatment of head lice, and – once infested – regular inspections and combing should take place until seven to ten days after the last nits are visible and have been removed. If numerous cases of head lice are detected or suspected in your child’s school, staff may arrange head inspections of children in close contact with others with head lice. These inspections should be conducted with discretion and parent/guardian and child/student consent.

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