Head lice are a dreadful infestation. Here’s how you can prevent this affliction from affecting your children.
The louse, or in plural, lice, is a parasitic insect which feeds on blood from the human scalp. The infestation occurs commonly among school going children compared to adults. So if you have children who go to school every day — be it preschool or secondary school — it is important for you to be aware of head lice infestation.
Head lice do not carry any form of bacterial or viral infection. However, this is a highly infectious condition and can cause a lot of discomfort; specifically a very itchy scalp.
A tiny pest
Head lice, which are scientifically known as Pendiculus humanus capitis, are about the size of a sesame seed when it is full grown. It can be found on the scalp, eyelashes or eyebrows of a person. Head lice are highly contagious and can spread very quickly from person to person. Even though they cannot jump or fly, they can climb and crawl firmly from one strand of hair to another. If you are in close contact with an infected person, the lice can climb on your hair and cause an infestation.
Head lice exist in three forms – the egg, nymph and adult lice.
The egg, or also known as a nit, is laid by the female louse. The female louse can lay up to six eggs each day. The eggs are firmly attached to the hair shaft by a sticky substance that is produced by the female louse. The nit is very small and cannot be seen with the naked eye. The egg takes about eight to nine days to hatch and it is then known as a nymph.
The nymph is a louse which has just hatched from the egg. The nymph looks like an adult louse but is smaller in size. Just like the adult louse, the nymph feeds on human blood. It takes about nine to 12 days for a nymph to develop into an adult louse.
Once a nymph has matured, it is now known as an adult louse. The louse has a greyish-white hue and has six legs. An adult louse can survive for up to 30 days on feeding on blood from a human scalp. However, if it falls off and does not have any blood to survive on, it will die within one to two days.
When it starts to itch
Head lice can be transmitted through direct contact such as if you hug an infected person. Sharing of hats, scarves, hair brushes, towels and headphones may cause an indirect transmission, though, this is less likely to occur.
You may not be aware that you’ve a head lice infestation until you experience some of the signs and symptoms:
- You’ve spotted them – Adult lice are visible but are difficult to spot as they are constantly on the move and enjoy dark areas.
- Itching – Itching occurs when you have an allergic reaction due to saliva secreted by the louse. Common areas that may feel itchy, include your ears, neck, and scalp. This symptom may not appear immediately and may only occur at a later stage such as two to six weeks after a head lice infestation.
- Sores – Red and bumpy sores can appear on your head due to excessive scratching. These sores can sometimes become infected, if bacteria is present on the skin.
If you spot your child having any of these symptoms, it is best to take him to a doctor before starting on any form of treatment. At times, other conditions such as dandruff, residue from hair products or even dirt may be mistaken for head lice. Hence, it is important that you consult a doctor before starting on any treatment.
Managing an infestation
If you have a head lice infestation, your doctor will most probably recommend over-the-counter (OTC) medication that kills lice and its eggs. OTC medications to treat head lice are usually derived from the chrysanthemum flower. A chemical compound extracted from these flowers, is toxic to head lice. Treatment can come in the form of medicated shampoos or lotions. However, if OTC medication is not effective enough, your doctor may prescribe an oral medication to treat the infestation.
Other than medication, a fine tooth comb can also be used to remove lice and some nits. If you would like to try this method, do keep in mind that the hair should be wet and applied with conditioner, petroleum jelly or hair grease to lubricate the hair stands. Run the comb from your child’s scalp to the end of the hair. Do this for about three to four days a week and until no more lice are found.
Other steps you can take as a precaution to avoid the spread of a head lice include:
- Washing items the person was in contact with such as bedsheet, pillowcase and soft toys.
- Cleaning all hair care items with hot water such as brushes and hair pins.
- Giving the floor a good vacuum.
Despite popular belief, a head lice infestation does not indicate poor hygiene. Dogs, cats or other pets are not the cause of head lice either and human head lice will not affect animals. If your child has a head lice infestation, be sure to consult a doctor immediately. When treated well, this infestation can be managed and stopped. Do not forget to seek advice from your child’s doctor to check if it is appropriate for your child to attend school during an active head lice infestation.