A heads-up on headlice

With the return to school looming, Dr MICHELLE O'DRISCOLL says treatment for headlice is not half as traumatic as it used to be!
A heads-up on headlice

So the letter informing you of a headlice outbreak arrives — now what? Picture posed by models

EVEN the word ‘headlice’ can get your scalp itching, but if you’re mum to smallies in school or creche, chances are you’ll either be the recipient of several letters about headlice, or have the experience of them coming to visit your home, on the heads of your children or yourself.

Part of the squeamishness around headlice is linked to childhood memories of attempting in vain to treat them. It often involved really strong, stinky products, vicious fine tooth combing of the hair, and even shaving of heads in a desperate attempt to get the better of them. It’s good to know that nowadays treatment doesn’t have to be so traumatic thanks to the improved range of treatment products and increased knowledge about how and why headlice thrive.

What are they?

Headlice are little dark insects about three milimetres in length, that crawl on the scalp. They are not caught because of dirty hair, this is a myth. They are transmitted by head to head contact, and live on blood from the scalp.

They grow as eggs called nits that attach to the base of the hair and are brown in colour, and when the louse hatches the shell left behind is white. The chemicals that they use when feeding on the scalp can make the scalp very itchy, a tell tale sign that you might have visitors! They’re largely harmless, but can become very irritating, frustrating and basically unpleasant.

When to treat?

So the letter informing you of a headlice outbreak arrives — now what? The initial reaction can often be to want to treat just in case. However, this is not advised, particularly with treatments that contain pesticides.

The chemicals used to treat headlice should be reserved for when you can confirm that they are definitely present. Use of those products at times when they’re not actually required can contribute to resistance, and lice that will be much more stubborn against the treatment if you do happen to catch them later. You also risk irritating the scalp. So the rule is — wait until you see them.

Instead of the just-in-case treatment approach, make sure you incorporate regular checking for headlice into your routine. Tip the head over a white sheet, and use a fine tooth comb through wet hair from roots to tip. It’s tedious, can be uncomfortable if hair is very long or curly, but it’s absolutely the best way to ensure that the scalp is louse-free. Use some conditioner to ease the tugging If needs be.

The white sheet will allow you to see very clearly if anything falls out, and you should check in between the teeth of the comb too. Pay particular attention to the nape of the neck and behind the ears.

Prevention where possible

For prevention, rather than reaching for the lice treatment bottle, tea tree shampoo and conditioner has some limited evidence that they help to prevent infestation Many brands are available that are suitable for younger scalps.

Other practical steps that you can take are reminding your kids to avoid heads-together activity where possible, although in Covid times it has been significantly reduced in many ways. Also, keep longer hair tied back neatly to minimise the opportunity of catching them.

Operation Treat Headlice

If you’re unlucky enough to spot a scurrying louse on the white sheet, you can be sure that there’s more than just the one, and you’ll need to treat. Treatment can be solely by combing regularly, but there are several options available in the pharmacy to apply to the hair and scalp for treatment of lice based on age, treatment time, product ingredients and product consistency. Some are a one treatment approach, and others require a repeat application. Whatever one you choose, get advice specific to your family’s needs. Check then treat if needed for everybody in the house.

And even if treatment is required, thorough combing is still key as it helps to remove everything for a clean slate and a successful outcome. Keep an eye out for some more innovative products to help in that regard — combs with metal teeth for a more comfortable experience, and combs with LED lights in them to highlight the lice or the nits.

Another important approach is treating everybody that has them on the same day, to avoid reinfestation. Repeat combing in the weeks after treatment will make sure that no lice have since hatched and were missed.

So if you do receive that letter from school come September, rest assured that it just means close monitoring. And if treatment is required, it’s not half as traumatic as it used to be!

Use of those products at times when they’re not actually required can contribute to resistance.

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