Whether you experienced it first-hand or witnessed your schoolmates be sent home after regulatory lice checks - almost everyone has a story about lice. Yet despite their ubiquity in classrooms and summer camps, there is a surprising amount that people don’t know about lice! This week The Medical Station discusses the topic of lice, from its prevention to its treatment.
What are Lice?
Head lice are tiny insects that cling to the scalp and neck, and feed off blood. They are typically brown, six-legged, and wingless. Lice infestations start when a louse lays its eggs, called nits, in a person’s hair. Nits are typically white or yellow, and stick to the hairs close to the scalp. After the nits hatch, they are considered nymphs, which is the term for baby lice. Nits usually hatch within ten days, and full-grown lice can live for up to thirty days in hair, or three days when away from the scalp. Lice are parasites, meaning that they live off of other living things, in this case tiny amounts of human blood, which they take by biting the head. Lice infestations are found in hair because it provides the warm conditions needed for them to live. The bites from lice cause the scalp to be itchy and occasionally painful, however aside from the annoyance and disgust that lice provoke, they are harmless and do not carry or transmit disease.
How to Prevent Lice?
Contrary to prior belief, lice cannot jump or fly, and are spread only by direct contact, either by head-to-head touching or through using an infested item, as they can also live for a short period on clothing, linen, hair brushes and combs, hats, scarves, and hair accessories. This is why lice is so often associated with children, as they play closely together and may not have the sense to not share hats, combs, and hair accessories.Though many people believe that lice are more common in children because they are unhygienic, this is a myth, and lice can be contracted by anyone regardless of age, race, class, hygiene, or hair length.
The best way to prevent head lice is to avoid head-to-head contact, or sharing personal items associated with hair or the scalp. It is also important to warn your children about head lice so that they can also be cautious about sharing hairbrushes or hats. It is also important to regularly check your child’s hair for nits and lice, and to have someone check your own hair as well, especially if you notice white specks that look similar to dandruff, itchiness, or a crawling sensation on the scalp. Other methods of prevention include keeping hair contained in order to minimize head-to-head contact. Wearing hair in braids, buns, or with a headscarf is a good way to keep the hair contained. Finally, adding a couple drops of tea tree oil to your shampoo and hair products is a good method of prevention, as lice hate the smell.
Treatments for Lice
There are several treatments for removing and killing lice, the most common being pyrethrum shampoo or lotion, otherwise known as “lice killing shampoo”. Pyrethrum or pyrethrin is the active ingredient in these shampoos that kills lice. Pyrethrin is one of three insecticides in Canada that are approved to treat head lice, the other two being permethrin and lindane. There are also home remedy treatments, although they typically do not work as well, as they attempt to suffocate the lice instead of poison them. These include olive oil, petroleum jelly, mayonnaise, or margarine. The Medical Station pharmacy, The Station Apothecary, carries several effective name-brand treatments including Nix, Kwellada, and a natural remedy called Nyda.
It is also important to rid your home and clothes of lice infestation once they’re out of the hair. There are several teams that will do this for you, as well as remove the lice from the hair. However, if you prefer to kill the infestation yourself, the best way is to vacuum the house, change the pillowcases and clothes daily while the infestation is active, and wash the clothes right away. Also buy new brushes and combs, and throw the old ones out. An extra measure of prevention is to put non-washable items that may have been affected in a sealed plastic bag for two weeks.