What are nits and how do children catch head lice?
Head lice and nits
Head lice and nits are two words often used interchangeably but they are actually two different things. Head lice are itchy little insects that live on the head and in the hair. Nits are actually the head lice eggs, which stick to the hair near the scalp and can be difficult to see. Even if you kill the lice, the nits that are nestled in the hair will lead to re-infection if they are not killed or removed.
How do children catch head lice?
Unfortunately, head lice are highly infectious and because of the way children play closely together at nursery and school, they are very prone to catching the horrible little critters! It is less common for adults to catch head lice as they generally have more personal space but it’s certainly not because the lice don’t like your hair. So be warned if your children do catch them, you’re not immune!
Head lice treatments include pesticides, non-chemical solutions, combing, homeopathic & household remedies as well as prevention.
What do head lice and nits look like? Symptoms to recognise
Head lice are the size of a full stop, dark brown, grey or black. They live close to the scalp, usually at the base of the neck. The first sign you notice might be your child scratching her head frequently.
Lice have a short lifespan but a single female can lay up to 300 eggs soon after hatching.
Nits look like tiny brown ovals the size of a pin head. Once hatched, the shells become more obvious and large lice can be spotted by the naked eye. Nice!
Treatments for head lice – non-pesticide approach
Many of the new head lice treatment products on the market no longer use traditional pesticides. These work by coating the lice, covering up their breathing holes – called spiracles – so they suffocate or dehydrate. There are some homeopathic and household products which people use for this but there are also specific head lice treatments available from your pharmacy, such as Hedrin and Full Marks.
It’s worth noting that this method only kills the lice and not the nits so you’ll need to do it again 7 days later when they hatch and combine it with a good combing!
Treatments for head lice – pesticide treatment
The two main insecticides that are used to kill head lice are malathion and permethrin. These are strong chemicals that are applied to wet hair and kill the lice, but over-the-counter solutions dilute them so they are safe for children’s heads, although may not be suitable for asthma or eczema sufferers.
They are generally very effective initially but lice sometimes become resistant to chemical eradication so it’s always worth combining pesticide treatment with combing. There is a further pesticide called carbaryl which can be prescribed by your GP if yours are really stubborn!
Treatments for head lice – combs
Very fine-toothed combs are an effective and cheap way to root out lice. One particular comb, the Nitty Gritty, has specially grooved teeth, which can pick out baby lice as well as their bigger parents.
However, it’s hard to remove the eggs, which are stuck onto your child’s hair shaft with sneaky head-lice ‘glue’ so you’ll need to comb out for at least 2-3 regular sessions. Leave around 5-7 days between combing, so the eggs can hatch but the lice aren’t quite mature enough to mate.
It’s much easier to remove lice (and run a comb through your child’s hair) if you’ve washed it and liberally smeared on conditioner. They can cling on better to dry hair.
Wipe the comb clean each time and put your child on a white towel or surface so you can see the fruits of your labour – yuck!
If you’re very vigilant this may be all you need to get rid of smaller infestations but regular combing is the key and you may find it more effective combined with either non-chemical treatments, pesticides or the old mayonnaise trick!
Treatments for head lice – homeopathic and household remedies
Essential oils such as tea tree oil and rosemary are sometimes suggested as natural lice killers, but then some mums swear by the less exotic household items mayonnaise and Listerine. It’s a trial and error process! Most oils will suffocate the lice if you coat them well enough but you should combine this with combing as the eggs will produce more lice as they hatch.
Head lice prevention
Lice are easier to catch if you have long hair, so keep your children’s hair trimmed and always tied up. Also, regularly check for lice – watch for scratching and run a comb if you have any suspicions.
Preventative shampoos are also available, for example Vosene or tea tree oil-based shampoos, which may help to repel lice.
Treatment is essential though if you find nits or lice or if your child brings home one of the dreaded lice letters from school or nursery!