Head Lice – EDP column by Dr Ketan Dhatariya

“I have had a letter from my child’s school telling me there has been a case of head lice in her year. What should I look out for?"

Head lice are tiny insects that live on the head and in the hair. They're highly infectious and easily passed between children who tend to work closely with their heads together, at school and at play. Infestation with head lice is also called pediculosis. Head lice are widespread in the UK and almost all school children have at least one attack, if not more. Head lice affect those with long or short, dirty or clean hair. Having head lice does not imply that you are unclean or dirty. They can affect anyone.

Head lice can be caught by direct contact or by sharing combs, brushes and hats. Whole families are often affected. The major symptom is itching, especially over the back of the head. The head lice are between 1-4 mm long (about the size of a sesame seed) and cling to the hair shaft. During the life cycle of lice, the female louse lays eggs, called nits, and careful examination may show adult lice on the scalp or nits firmly cemented to the hair. The nits attach to the hair shaft close to the scalp or body - nits, which resemble dandruff, are attached with a water-insoluble, glue-like substance that makes them difficult to remove. Between 6 and 10 days late, the nits hatch as nymphs, which themselves become adults in 10 days. Adult lice live for approximately 30 days on their human hosts, but die if they are away from a human's head or body for more than 2 days

The first-line treatment often used is wet-combing with a fine-toothed comb. The hair is wet combed with a fine tooth detector comb for about half an hour, until all the lice are removed. It may be easier if a little olive oil or conditioner is applied first. This process is then repeated every 3rd or 4th day for at least two weeks - if further lice are found then the whole process must be repeated. This method may not be as effective as using the topical treatments, and so these may have to be used eventually. Some of these are available over the counter, whilst others are available only on prescription.

As always, if you are unsure of what to do, have a chat with your pharmacist or doctor.

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