Head Lice - Symptoms, Prevention and Treatment
Head lice are small insects that live in the hair. The lice feed on blood from the scalp and are commonly found in children.
Having head lice is not usually something to worry about. It is not a sign of poor personal hygiene or a dirty environment.
Treating head lice is simple, and there are a range of medicated and non-medicated ways to treat the problem.
The most common signs of head lice include:
Itching is the most common head lice symptom. Itching is present on the scalp, head and the ears, it is an allergic reaction to the louse bites. When you get lice for the first time it can take 4-6 weeks for itching to occur after being infected.
When the lice are moving around in your hair, you may also be able to feel a tickling sensation from the movement.
Lice on scalp
In some cases, you might be able to see the head lice on your scalp or your child's scalp. Lice are difficult to spot because they are very small and are a light colour.
Eggs stick to the shaft of the hair, however, they can be hard to spot because of how tiny they are. They are easier to spot around the hairline, ears and the neck.
When it comes to spotting lice, it is more difficult to see them on dark hair. Lice are dark in colour and can easily blend in with darker hair tones.
Itching can leave you or your child with sore red bumps on the scalp, neck and shoulders. The bumps can sometimes become infected with bacteria.
Head lice can crawl, but they can’t jump or fly. They spread from one person to another by direct head-to-head contact. Lice can also spread from one person to another when sharing personal items like a hairbrush or a hat.
Before starting treatment for headlice, it is important to talk to a healthcare provider. It is important to establish if lice are present. The only way to diagnose head lice is spotting them. Head lice can often be mistaken for other things including:
- Residue from hair products
- Dead hair tissue
- Scabs, dirt and other debris laying in the hair
- Other insects in the hair
How to tell if you have head lice or fleas
There might be confusion on whether you have head lice or fleas. Fleas are harder to find in comparison to head lice, this is because they are able to move so well through the hair.
You might spot a flea and then not be able to find it again. Lice are less mobile than fleas and can attach themselves to individual hairs with their mouth.
When it comes to bites, flea bites and lice bites present themselves differently. Lice bites will present as small, reddish bumps on the skin or scalp, sometimes with crusted blood. A flea bite is usually a small, discoloured bump that often has a halo around it.
Lice are dark in colour and are the size of a poppyseed, making them extremely difficult to see due to their size. It is more difficult to spot them with dark hair. The eggs that are laid by lice are normally white or a yellowish-brown making them easier to spot in darker hair.
When you are looking for lice, look for them to be attached to the hair near the scalp. To tell them apart from other things like dandruff or dirt, pull down on the little speck with your fingers. A louse usually sticks to your hair when you do this. You can also use a magnifying glass and a bright light to help you identify head lice.
You can also use a comb to look for head lice. Comb through yours or your child's hair and wipe the comb onto tissue or a paper towel to make it easier to see them.
When looking for lice, you should thoroughly inspect the back of the head, behind both ears, the nape of the neck and bangs.
Head lice should be treated as soon as you spot them. If you find any lice, everyone in your house should be checked.
You can remove head lice with wet combing. You should use a nit comb to remove the lice. You should wash your hair with normal shampoo and apply a generous amount of conditioner. You then need to comb the whole of the head, from the roots to the ends.
It usually takes 10 minutes to comb through shorter hair. If you are dealing with long, curly or frizzy hair then this can take between 20 and 30 minutes to comb through.
You should wet comb on days 1, 5, 9 and 13 to catch lice that have hatched. You should check the hair again on day 17 to check that the removal has been successful.
Medicated sprays or lotions
If you have been unsuccessful with wet combing or it is not suitable then another option would be using a medicated lotion or spray to remove the lice.
Using a medicated spray will typically kill the lice within a day. Depending on the lotion or spray, this may need to be repeated a week after to catch any lice that have hatched.
Lotions and sprays contain an insecticide. You should only use a lotion or spray if you find living lice in the hair. When you apply the product to your hair, it must be left for a certain amount of time to kill and remove the lice.
Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to prevent head lice. You can stop head lice from spreading if you catch them early by wet or dry combing.
It is important that you don't use medicated lotions or sprays to catch head lice as this can lead to scalp irritation.
Even though you can't prevent head lice there are several things you or your child can do to lower the risk of catching them.
You should make the effort to avoid head to head contact where possible. Avoid activities that involve getting too close to other people's heads.
Hold back on sharing items like hats, hairbrushes, hair straighteners, hoodies or anything else that you put on your head. Lice can live off the hair, so although it is unlikely that you will get lice from sharing personal items, it is still possible.