Head lice

Head lice (or ‘nits’) are small insects that live on people's scalps and lay their eggs on separate strands of hair.

Summary

Head lice spread by crawling from one person’s hair to another’s.

They’re usually spread amongst people who are in close contact, such as family or school classmates.

Anyone can be infested, and there is no obvious relationship to hair cleanliness. However parents who wash their children’s hair frequently will find them quicker.

If your child has head lice, you should let their school know.


Related websites

BestHealth
Part of the medical publishing division of the British Medical Association.

  • Headlice – section covering their lifecycle, what they look like, symptoms and treatments

Kidshealth
Developed by the Starship Foundation and the Paediatric Society of New Zealand.

  • Headlice – key points to remember, links to resources

DermNet NZ
DermNet New Zealand Trust

Women and Children's Health Network – Child and Youth Health
This website by the South Australian government has a kids’ health section with useful information on:

Symptoms

Signs of head lice

Two common signs of head lice are:

  1. an extremely itchy scalp, especially around the nape of the neck, behind the ears, under the fringe and at the top of plaits or a pony tail
  2. scratch marks or a rash on the scalp.

How to check for head lice

  1. Check the person’s scalp for insects or eggs.
  2. Use a fine-tooth comb on wet hair, as this makes it easier to find any lice.
  3. Pay particular attention to the crown and the hairline – especially at the back of their neck and behind their ears.

What do head lice look like?

Find out on BestHealth

Treatment

The two most common head lice treatment methods are ‘wet combing’ and ‘chemical treatment’.

  • Wet combing – wet the hair and scalp with conditioner (this makes it easier to see the head lice) then comb the lice and eggs out. It’s best to use the fine metal combs or special head lice combs you can get from a pharmacy.
  • Chemical shampoo or lotion (containing insecticide) – this will kill the lice and eggs.

Always re-treat 7–10 days after the first treatment, to kill any head lice that may have hatched from eggs that survived the first treatment.

Other treatments of unproven efficacy include electric combs, herbal/essential oils and enzyme treatments.

Prevention

  • Brush your hair every day, as this can help to kill or injure lice and stop them from laying eggs. If you have long hair it is best to bend your head forward with your hair hanging down and use a firm bristled brush.
  • Don't share brushes, combs, headbands, ribbons, hairclips, helmets or hats – basically anything that has direct contact with someone’s head.
  • Having short hair – or wearing your hair in a ponytail if it’s long – makes it less likely you’ll catch head lice.
  • In sports or swimming pool changing rooms, it’s best for children to keep their clothes separate from other children’s.
  • If you do get head lice in your family, treat everyone that has them at the same time, as this can help reduce the chance of re-infestation.
  • Regularly check your children for head lice – eg, every week.

It’s not possible to completely prevent head lice because they’re very common and breed prolifically.

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