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Lice: What you need to know, and what you can ignore

Did a letter come home from school about lice – yet? It probably will at some point. Neil Hedley does some nit-picking of his own and offers some tips.
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Neil Hedley, September 23, 2013 11:08:20 AM

Lice.

Just reading the word makes me itchy.

And if you’ve got kids in school, you’ve probably seen the letter that gets sent home, telling you that one of your child’s classmates has lice, and to keep a sharp eye.  But plenty of parents (especially newer ones) are left wondering, “Sharp eye for what, exactly?!?!”  So here’s a crash course on lice, and what to do about them, with perhaps the most critical point being this one:

Quit the judging, quit being ashamed

One study suggests that at least one in 10 children in school will have to deal with head lice at some point.  It doesn’t mean your kid is dirty, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a clean house.  A child doesn’t get head lice because their parents don’t do laundry often enough, or because the child bathes too infrequently.  It happens.

Know thine enemy

There are over 3,000 species of lice.  There are typically three different species that are “hosted” by humans, most commonly described as head lice, body lice and pubic lice.  They’re not the same kind of louse just found in a different place – the three types are actually different from each other.  For example, head lice do not carry disease, while body lice do.  Head lice can’t fly, and they don’t even jump very well.  Despite what you might think, actual head-to-head contact is the most common form of “transport” from one human host to another, because lice like to get around by moving from one shaft of hair to another.  Since they only survive a day or two at most when they’re not able to feed on human blood – which they do multiple times a day – they prefer not to move to things like combs, hairbrushes and articles of clothing.  However, head-to-head contact, and the sharing of infested combs, clothing, pillows and such items are the most common spreaders of an infestation.

Depending on what stage of their life cycle they’re in, they can be small enough to be mistaken for a flake of skin or grain of sand (common with nits, the louse eggs), while the adult lice look a lot like a sesame seed.

My kid has lice – now what?

If you Google “how to get rid of lice”, the search engine will spill out more than five million pages, each one claiming to be the best resource, and similarly claiming that many of the others are somewhere between misguided and fatal.  Having cross-referenced with dozens of different sites including the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health, here’s what seems to be the best approach:

  • Clearly identify what you’re dealing with.  Best method to find lice is on wet hair with a strong light and a magnifying glass.  If it fell off your kid’s hair easily, it was more likely a flake of dandruff or a piece of sand or dirt.  Very fine-toothed combs can be a huge help at this stage, and some people even have success in grabbing the little rotters with a piece of clear tape.
  • Be careful what you put in your child’s hair when you’re at the “identification” stage – things like some conditioners can actually protect the louse from the treatment process.
  • If your child is under the age of two, or if you’re very concerned about safety, manual removal might just be the best way to go.
  • There are a number of over-the-counter products available, including familiar brand names like Rid and Nix.  More and more experts are starting to talk about lice becoming resistant to these products, although a number of other experts will argue that the products become less effective when they’re not applied properly.  Ask your doctor or pediatrician.
  • Keep in mind that many home remedies – things like mayonnaise and olive oil are common recommendations – only serve to either kill the adults (usually by suffocation) or the eggs.  Few of these home remedies actually work to kill both, and you’re likely to find yourself in a cycle of treatment that will be a lot like playing “Whack-A-Mole” on your kid’s head.
  • In one study, a bonnet-style hair dryer killed 89 per cent of nits (but only 10 per cent of adult lice), and even a regular blow dryer can help – but be careful not to burn your child’s scalp, and don’t use a hot hair dryer after using a chemical treatment – you might set your kid’s hair on fire.
  • Some natural oils are starting to gain more widespread acceptance, most notably tea tree oil.  An Italian study released in 2012 shows tea tree oil at a 1 per cent concentration killing 100 per cent of adult lice, and suggests putting tea tree oil in a child’s hair and covering with a shower cap overnight.  Used in combination with nerolidol (commonly found in neroli oil, ginger and others), the pair proved 100 per cent effective in killing adult lice, nymphs and the eggs (nits).
  • If tea tree oil proves ineffective (or, if after dabbing a tiny drop on the back of your child’s hand, you find they’re allergic to it), others will swear by lavender oil, neem oil and clove oil.

What about bedding and clothes?

The nits take a week to hatch.  So the best approach here is to wash everything in the hottest water you can, drying it on the highest setting you can, and letting it sit out of reach for a couple of days.  Things that can’t be washed should be sealed in a plastic bag for two weeks (to kill the adult lice, and to give the eggs time to hatch and die).

MORE THOUGHTS FROM NEIL HEDLEY:

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