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Head lice

Head lice are tiny greyish-brown parasites that live on the scalp and are common among schoolchildren.

Head lice bite through the skin and live on the blood of the host, or person, who has lice. Female lice lay eggs that firmly attach to hair shafts.

Head lice infestation

Head lice are spread by direct head-to-head contact and sometimes by sharing items including combs, brushes, scarves, and hats with an affected person.

Head lice prefer human heads rather than soft toys, hats and bedding, so hot washes or other pest control measures are not needed.

Head lice infestation has nothing to do with poor hygiene and can affect people of all social classes.

What are the symptoms of head lice?

Bites from head lice can cause intense itching and irritation of the scalp.

After the female head louse lays eggs onto hair, usually near to the root, baby head lice hatch out after 7-10 days. The head lice are fully grown after another 9-10 days. Head lice die after around 3 weeks.

A person with head lice may also develop a rash on the nape of the neck.

What is the treatment for head lice?

Age-appropriate over-the-counter and prescription treatments can be used to treat head lice by killing them. These products are available in lotion and shampoo form, and often contain silicone and oil-based formulations.

Head lice eggs can be more difficult to treat because the insecticide lotions do not penetrate the eggshell to get in to the developing louse. Therefore, it may be necessary to repeat the treatment after seven days to kill lice emerging from any eggs that survived the first application.

Make sure head lice products are suitable for groups such as babies under six months old, pregnant women and people with asthma or allergies.

Products containing 4% dimeticone lotion are approved for use during pregnancy and breastfeeding, but seek medical advice if you have questions or concerns.

Wet combing

Using a special fine-toothed comb on wet hair can help get rid of headlice and nits (the empty egg shells). Special lotion or spray products are not needed for wet combing. The steps are:

  • Wash the hair with shampoo and conditioner.
  • Comb and straighten hair with an ordinary comb.
  • Then use the fine toothed comb starting at the scalp and combing to the end of the hair. This will be quicker with straight hair and take longer with curly hair.
  • After each stroke, check the comb, then wipe or rinse the comb before the next section of hair is combed.
  • Rinse out the conditioner and repeat combing.
  • Repeat wet combing to disrupt headlice development cycles three, six, nine, 12 and 15 days later.

How can head lice be prevented?

The best way to prevent lice is to avoid close physical contact with someone who has lice. It may also help to avoid sharing combs, brushes, towels, scarves, hats, clothes, and other objects. Examine and treat all members of your household who are found to have live headlice.

If you find that your child has head lice, you must notify your child's school, nursery, day care centre or babysitter.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on November 17, 2016

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