Facts about head lice
Head lice are tiny insects which live in the hair and feed by biting the scalp and sucking blood. The female head louse lays her eggs close to the scalp where it is warm enough to incubate them. The eggs, or nits, hatch out, start feeding and soon begin to lay more eggs. Empty egg shells are left attached to the hair when the louse hatches. Head lice are caught by head to head contact with someone who already has them. Although anyone can catch them, they prefer the heads of 4-11 year olds. Clean hair is no protection against them. When heads touch, the lice simply walk from one head to another. Adult lice take every opportunity to exchange hosts to avoid extinction through
Signs of head lice
The way head lice feed causes itching, so scratching the scalp is usually the first sign that a child has head lice. However, it should be pointed out that the onset of itching may be delayed by weeks, or even months, when someone first catches lice. Another sign of head lice may be a rash on the base of the neck caused by lice droppings. Anyone who has had head lice for a while may begin to feel generally unwell or ‘lousy’.
Lice are most easily detected by combing really well conditioned soaking wet hair with a fine-tooth comb. Really wet lice stay still and cannot escape. Combing dry or damp hair with a fine-tooth comb is not a reliable way to detect lice. In dry or damp hair, lice move quickly away from the disturbance caused by a comb.
There are two main methods of dealing with a head lice infestation: wet combing and use of insecticidal lotions.
Various lotions are available to treat head lice. They should only be used when live lice have been detected. There are three main groups of chemicals: pyrethoids, malathion and carbaryl. Carbaryl is only available on prescription. Apart from being expensive, there are concerns that head lice are becoming resistant to these treatments and that they may be unsafe when used repeatedly. They should be used with caution by infants, pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and anyone with asthma, eczema or other allergies. Even if treatment is successful, the child may catch lice again shortly afterwards. In the instructions for use, malathion, carbaryl and pyrethroid products (lotions and mousse) advise against treating hair more than three times successively at weekly intervals. Community Hygiene Concern suggests that this instruction should apply to any combination of insecticides.
The ‘bug busting’ method is an alternative method, devised by the charity ‘Community Hygiene Concern’, which avoids the use of insecticides. After washing the hair, copious amounts of conditioner should be applied and, after detangling with an ordinary wide toothed comb, the hair should be combed, sitting upright or leaning over the bath, from the roots with a special ‘bug buster’ fine tooth comb, with the teeth of the comb slotting into the hair at the roots with every stroke. After each stroke, the lice should be cleared from the comb.
Wet lice find it difficult to escape from this combing. Hair, which is slippery from conditioner, makes it hard for them to keep a grip and so removal with the comb is easier. The lice should then be wiped onto kitchen paper and disposed of, or simply rinsed away. This routine should be repeated every 3-4 days for two weeks so that any lice emerging from the eggs are removed before they can spread. Given that head lice do not lay eggs until about a week after they have hatched, it follows that removing the live lice regularly will result in lice-free children in a fortnight. Re-infection can, of course, occur if head to head contact is subsequently made with someone with head lice. ‘Bug buster’ kits, containing instruction leaflets, five combs (a de-tangler comb and combs for removing baby and adult live and empty shells) and a plastic cape, are reusable, and are available from some local chemists or from Community Hygiene Concern (see below for address).
Prevention of spreading
Parents are requested to check their child’s hair regularly, using the ‘bug busting’ wet combing method described above, and inform the school as soon as they discover any head lice. If an outbreak occurs, all parents will be sent a standard letter, alerting them to the outbreak and asking them to take part in a ‘bug busting’ campaign, involving careful combing of the whole family’s conditioned hair with a ‘bug buster’ comb every three days over a two week period. All parents should be asked to take part, regardless of whether they think their child has lice, since without rigorous checking the lice are easy to miss. Teachers and their families should also participate in the campaign. Parents who choose to use an insecticidal product should also be advised to ‘bug bust’ 3-5 days after application, to check that no lice remain after the treatment and to clear any new lice which may be caught, before they multiply.
For Further information:
Head lice infestation, particularly when repeated, can cause great distress. Further information on ‘bug busting’ can be found at
Community Hygiene Concern
(Charity reg no: 801371)
6-9 Manor Gardens,
Help Line: 01908 561928
Web site: www.nits.net/bugbusting