Head lice and nits - symptoms and treatment: EVERYTHING you need to know
What’s the difference between nits and head lice? How do you know your child has them? And how on EARTH do you get rid of the critters? Fret not, we have the answers right here...
Got a child in primary school? Then there’s a fair chance they’ve either had or will soon get nits and head lice.
Yep - unfortunately the little beasts are a fact of life with young children - especially if your child has reached year 1 or above. As mum Nicolamumtothree on our forum found out: “I never had a problem at nursery with my oldest.
“It was only when he started at 'big school' [primary school]. We have to keep his hair really short.”
So prevalent is the nit issue, lots of schools take fairly stringent precautions to get parents to check, check and check again if their kids are infested.
Listen to what mum Queenlgraine said on our forum: “Got a letter home [from school] tonight… stating… tonight is the night that every child that goes to his school is supposed to have their head checked for head lice.
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“Except I didn't read the letter until they had gone to bed. So had to get them up again and get out the conditioner and the nit comb and go through their hair.
“Lots of sobbing later and ta-dah - no head lice. I now have to sign and return a form to confirm that I have carried out the instructions and whether I found any nits or not.”
Needless to say, nits are super-common (we reckon this mum was lucky to get a negative on the little beasts ?). So we thought it would be good to give you the rundown on these speedy creepers, including:
- the difference between nits and head lice
- what they look like
- how long they live for
- what the symptoms are and how to check if your child has them
- how to treat them
- so that at least you feel armed with some knowledge if the little pests decide to make their home on your child’s head.
What’s the difference between head lice and nits?
"The term head lice refers to the insects themselves and the word 'nits' refers to the empty egg casings that are left after the lice hatch," family GP Dr Philippa Kaye tells us (read more about Dr Philippa on her dedicated website).
Head lice are about the size of a sesame seed, and although they cling to the hair, they tend to stay close to the scalp, she explains.
Nits look more like flakes of dandruff but aren't easily brushed out of the hair, she adds. They stick to the hair shaft but can be slid up and down between your fingers.
Head lice are easily spread through head-to-head contact. And we’ll say right here that it's a MYTH that they only like clean hair - clean or dirty, any hair will do!
How long do head lice live for?
The life cycle of a head louse is pretty quick - around 3 weeks from egg to adult on their human host.
It goes something like this:
- Each adult female lays between 50 to 150 eggs in their lifetime and these hatch in just 5 to 9 days
- Young head lice feed on blood several times a day, growing to maturity all the while until they are fully-grown adults producing eggs of their own
- Those adults can live for 30 to 40 days, happily sucking blood and transferring whenever infected scalps come into contact with other heads.
What are the main symptoms of head lice?
The main symptom of head lice is an itchy scalp although, perhaps surprisingly, that's not from feeling the little critters scuttling across your head.
Dr Philippa reveals: "The lice bite the skin of the scalp to feed on the blood and the itching is not from the biting itself, or even the lice moving on your head - you can't feel that. Rather it's from the skin’s reaction to the saliva of the lice.
"It can take time for this reaction to develop so you can have had lice for a while before you start to itch, which unfortunately means that the infestation isn't treated and can spread."
How do you check if your child has lice?
The best way to do this is to use a nit detection comb with very fine metal teeth, available over the counter from the pharmacy.
You can either comb through wet or dry hair but it's vital to check thoroughly and this will take a while - so now is the time to put on your child’s favourite programme or distract them with a book.
For the wet method, Dr Philippa advises: "Wash your child's hair and then put in loads of conditioner, literally loads.
“Then comb through normally as otherwise the nit comb can get caught in hair knots and tangles.
“Separate the hair into very small sections and comb the nit comb through from the scalp to the ends.
"It’s really important to start with the comb touching the scalp to pick up any lice.
“Check the comb for lice - 2-3mm brownish-grey insects the size of a sesame seed, though the hatchlings may be smaller - by wiping the comb onto a white tissue or paper towel.
“You may need a magnifying glass and a strong light to help you look."
She adds that if you do find lice you should rinse the comb before the next stroke, as you don’t want to put the lice back in the hair.
Then repeat in small sections until the whole scalp has been covered and rinse out the conditioner.
On our forum, mum theoldwomanwholivesinashoe uses this method, and tells us:
“Definitely comb through with lots of conditioner and a nit comb. It doesn't kill them, but if you get the eggs out… there'll be nothing to hatch, so you get rid of them that way.
“It’s time-consuming, so you can't get rid [of them] overnight, and of course you get the little blighters trying to crawl away - maybe onto you.
“I had 4 on my t-shirt which were probably trying to find a home on me, so I either wash them down the sink or wipe them off the comb onto a white kitchen towel so I know they're done.
“My Grandad used to tell us that his mother used to "crack" them with her thumbnail as she got them out. They didn't have lotions in those days!”
The dry hair method involves using a nit comb as above, but if you see a louse as you pull the comb through the hair, you must trap it against the comb teeth with your finger or thumb. That will stop any static electricity making the louse 'jump' off the comb!
Treatment – how do you get rid of nits and head lice?
Now to the big question – and lots of mums on our forum have asked it too, like Sharron, who says:
“I'm a mum and I would like to know - what are your methods to get rid of nits and head lice?
“Do you know any treatments that work? Please, could you give me some advice to kill, remove and catch them?
We hear your plea, Sharron!
Now, physically removing every live louse, using the wet combing method and plenty of conditioner, is one way to treat them. But this is hugely time-consuming, taking up to an hour to do just one head properly.
This would need to be done on every affected person in the house at least 4 times, every 3 to 4 days.
Because you are only removing lice and not the eggs that are waiting to hatch out, you need to keep going until you have had 3 sessions without finding any lice at all.
Luckily there are speedier remedies. Headlice products come in both insecticide and non-insecticide options, and can be used to treat and kill head lice. Plus they take up less time than wet combing.
Non-insecticide products tend to work physically by suffocating and dehydrating the lice and eggs, preventing resistance.
They come in a range of options like shampoo, spray or lotion so you can choose which one most suits your child -just check the label for the age they’re suitable from.
"The directions are generally to apply the solution and leave on for a period of time before washing off,” Dr Philippa advises (though do check the packet for specific guidelines).
“Most products will recommend a second treatment after 7 days in order to kill any lice which may have hatched from eggs after the first treatment.”
Whatever you do – don’t do nothing when it comes to nits and head lice
Kathryn Ingold is a public health consultant working for North Yorkshire County Council. She recommends that, whatever parents do, they shouldn’t just ignore the problem.
"They are simple to treat but you have to keep on at it," she confirms. "They won't spontaneously go away - they multiply and should to be treated."
Should I keep my child off school or nursery if they have nits or head lice?
No - though you should let school or nursery know if your child has them so that staff can request other parents and carers to check their kids for lice, says Kathryn.
Schools can then send out a letter or text message to parents in the affected class - without identifying the child.
"There's no exclusion requirement," she explains. "You don't need to go and see your GP and there's no need to cut your child’s hair."
But she also stresses that if you’re having a hard time getting rid of them, do talk to someone – there’s always a school nurse or other medical professional that can help.
"If you are having problems getting rid of head lice, talk to the teacher at the school she says. "Head lice can be hard to get rid of. Please ask for help if you are struggling."
We have to say – we couldn’t agree more with Kathryn’s words here.
And if you want to de-stress with other mums on the topic of these nightmare beasties, be sure also to join the chat in our forum, where LOTS of our mums are going through the same thing.
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