Gulp! Around one in ten children in the UK are estimated to have head lice at any one time. That’s a lot of children and a lot of head lice.
It also means that your little one is frequently at risk of picking up a new batch of lice, every time she plays with a group of friends. Although, head lice are most common among school aged children, due to the close physical contact they have with their friends, younger children – and adults – can catch them too.
Luckily, there are a number of things you can do to help prevent head lice.
1 Check your child’s hair regularly
One of the best ways to prevent infestation is to catch any stray lice that have found your child’ hair as soon as possible.
The reason is that head lice replicate at an incredible speed. After a female has laid her eggs, it takes just 7-10 days for the eggs to hatch. And then only 6-10 days before those young lice are getting jiggy and ready to lay their own eggs.
In a recent survey, it was found that nine out of 10 pharmacists believed that parents weren’t checking their children’s hair often enough. And a national campaign, called ‘Once a week, take a peek,’ has been set up to encourage this practice.
2 Use a nit comb
Finding lice is not an easy job. Newborn lice are very small while lice eggs are hard to spot because they’re translucent and laid very close to the scalp. Once the eggs have hatched, the empty shells – known as nits – are left on the hair. The shells turn white when they’re empty which makes them easier to spot.
The best way to spot lice is to comb through your child’s hair using a special nit detection comb with teeth no more than 0.3mm apart.
Comb through a section of hair and then wipe any contents from the comb on a white tissue or paper. You’ll be able to see live lice moving.
Do systematic combing, starting with the front, or fringe, and work your way back. According to Christine Brown, head lice specialist and former nurse consultant with the medical entomology centre, it’s crucial that you’re thorough and go back to where you started at least once. “Head lice can be very good at evading the comb,” she says.
“They’ve got six legs and move through hair like gibbons through a forest. So when the hair is being combed they simply move to another part of the head.”
How to use a head lice comb effectively
- Part the hair into small sections and comb for lice, returning from time to time to areas you’ve already covered just to make sure.
- Pay particular attention to the areas close to the scalp, behind the ears, the back of the neck, the top of the head and under the fringe.
- Try using a detangler spray (some head lice repellent sprays act as detanglers) or light oil, such as grape-seed, to help the fine-tooth nit comb pass through easier during your search.
3 Use lice repellent sprays or shampoos
Head lice prevention sprays and shampoos can help to repel lice and can be used safely on young children’s hair. Often pleasant smelling, they’re said to be effective for about seven hours. Even better, they often work as detanglers, making them particularly useful if your child has long hair and brushing and combing is challenging to say the least.
MUM’S TIP “My daughter has thick long hair and I find the only way I can get near with a nit comb, is to first use a lice repellent spray and then brush it through with our Tangle Teezer brush first. That gets rid of the big knotty bits, so we can then work through with a comb.”
Carole Mackenzie, mum to Kitty, 4, and Tom, 2
4 Don’t share brushes, combs or hats
Head lice will inhabit any hair type, from long, curly and squeaky clean to ultra short, straight and unwashed. While schoolchildren are encouraged to tie up long hair to avoid lice infestation, research suggest they’re as likely to move onto the head of a child with a tight plait than someone with loose hair.
So you need to practice good hair hygiene around the house. Firstly, avoid sharing hats, hairbrushes and combs. After baths and hair washes, make sure each child has her own towel, especially if you’re drying hair.
“Head lice can live for up to an hour and a half away from a human head,” Christine Brown explains. “So if you wear the hat of someone who has head lice very soon after they’ve taken it off, or use their hairbrush, you could catch them.”
Although it’s a big ask of excitable children, try to encourage your child to avoid putting her head right next to the heads and hair of her friends when playing.
5 Watch for frequent head scratching
If you notice your child suddenly scratch her head a few times, whip out the nit comb and do a check. Don’t wait for the weekly comb through. Also look out for any tell-tale red bites – often around the nape of her neck and behind her ears. They’ll look like little red spots.