HEAD LICE IN SCHOOLS Information and Advice on How to Tackle the Problem of Head Lice What are 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.
How are they transmitted? 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 host to avoid extinction through in-breeding.
Shared brushes and combs can also transmit lice so schools should discourage children from sharing combs and brushes. It is also sensible for schools to stipulate that the school photographer should not use the same comb to tidy every child’s hair.
Shared hats, headphones and jackets hung close together do not, however, present a risk. This is because head lice that involuntarily fall off the head or clamber on to clothes or other articles, such as pillows or cuddly toys, are dying and harmless.
What are the signs of head lice infestation? The way head lice feed causes itching, so scratching the scalp is usually the first sign that a child has head lice. It should, however, 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’.
How are head lice detected?
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. Regular head inspections in school, therefore, are of dubious value because only the most severe cases are likely to be detected. Many milder cases will be overlooked, thus lulling parents and schools into a false sense of security.
What is the treatment? There are two main methods of dealing with head lice infestation: wet combing and use of insecticidal lotions.
Use of Insecticidal Lotions
Various lotions are available to treat head lice from the doctors (free) or chemist. They should only be used when live lice have been detected.
Wet Combing or ‘Bug Busting’ Method
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 spread.
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.