What parents need to know about head lice and how to get ride of them

A recent survey showed 75% of East Anglian parents mistakenly rely head scratching as a sign of head

A recent survey showed 75% of East Anglian parents mistakenly rely head scratching as a sign of head lice. Picture: thinkstockphotos - Credit: PA

When I was at school I don’t really remember anyone having head lice. Maybe it had something to do with the ‘nit nurse’.

For those born after about the mid 1980s, who probably have no idea what I’m talking about, the ‘nit nurse’ visited schools regularly to check generations of children’s hair for lice.

We lined up in the school hall, waiting to have our hair checked by our nit nurse, a woman with a cunning expression and razor-sharp features, who looked like she could probably sniff out a head louse from a considerable distance.

Nit nurses were phased out in the 1980s and ‘90s as the practice of checking children’s hair in this way increasingly came to be viewed as humiliating and embarrassing. Instead, the responsibility for finding and treating head lice shifted from schools to parents. And some take that responsibility more seriously than others.

Anyone with school-aged children will know that head lice are a problem that never goes away. Letters home warning parents about “head lice in school” are a common occurrence across the country.

But a recent survey of 2,500 parents of children aged four to 15 revealed that there are still many common misconceptions about these blood-sucking parasites.

It showed that 75% of parents in East Anglia rely on their child scratching their head as a sign of head lice when, in fact, not everyone itches when they have an infestation.

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The survey, commissioned by the makers of head lice treatment Hedrin, also revealed that in this region, 67% of parents think some parents are not bothered if their child has lice; 23% say they would hide their child’s head lice from other parents and 50% incorrectly think that head lice can jump from one head to another.

According to expert Ian Burgess, director of the Medical Entomology Centre in Cambridge, the only true way of knowing if someone has head lice is by conducting regular checks.

“Only about 30% of people itch when they have lice,” he says. “Head lice can appear at any place and any time, so there is no need to avoid certain situations, but just be vigilant and ensure that you check your child’s hair regularly.

“Firstly, to diagnose a case of head lice, you need to find them alive. Lice range in size from a full-stop to a sesame seed and remain close to the scalp. However, you will need to check all over, from the back of the head to behind the ears and under the fringe.”

Ian suggests following the ‘three Cs’ for tackling head lice:

1. Comb: Use a fine-tooth comb, with teeth no more than 0.3mm apart. A white comb makes them more visible.

2. Conditioner: It’s easiest to comb the hair when it is wet and use a conditioner as a lubricant.

3. Comfort: As the process should be part of your weekly routine, make sure you child’s comfortable and distract them with their favourite TV programme.

He also offers the following advice...

If you find lice, don’t panic

“Head lice are a normal part of life. Use a non-pesticide treatment such as Hedrin Once Spray Gel (£6 for 60ml, Boots) that smothers the lice instead of poisoning them. Research suggests that lice have become resistant to traditional pesticide treatments. Most people use a non-pesticide product these days. Home remedies include dosing the hair in vinegar, mayonnaise and olive oil. However, none of these are clinically proven to eradicate lice. If you are unsure about what treatment to use, speak to your pharmacist.”

Only treat if you find live lice

“It is very important to follow the instructions on the packet and cover the full length of hair until it is saturated for the recommended time. It is important to keep it away from your child’s eyes, face and shoulders and ensure you keep the lotion away from heat sources, such as hair dryers, naked flames and cigarettes.”

Detect and protect

“Once you have completed the course of the treatment, check to see if there are any live lice left - remember, you need to see them moving. If you do find lice, this could be a result of a failed treatment or re-infestation. At this point, you will need to treat again. It is likely some empty eggs are left behind, as they have a strong bond with the hair and are difficult to remove - these are called nits. There are now products that help loosen the bond between the nits and the hair, to allow them to slide off easily when using a suitable comb. When you are confident that you have got rid of the infestation and the remaining nits, it may be worth considering a protection product as other children are likely to still be carrying lice in their class.”

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