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Guide Health: The itchiness of head lice

Cures are available, but even with the best products, you’ll need to be persistent

Your fingers probably just want to scratch your scalp when you hear the words “head lice,” but don’t scratch yet. On any given day, only about one per cent of the population are affected with pediculosis, as it is known in scientific circles, and they are mainly school children three to 11 years of age.

Of course, though, the families of the affected children may also find themselves targets for lice.

Lice are small bloodsucking parasites that live on people. Adult lice are too small to see, but the nits or immature lice look like tiny grains of rice. You can see them attached to the hair close to the scalp, especially at the back and sides of the hairline. The life cycle of lice is eight to 15 days (which is why you need two treatments about seven days apart to “catch” any newly hatched lice).

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Lice do not hop from one person to another. They need close personal contact or the sharing of items like hats, scarves, brushes or even bedding to spread. Lice do not infest pets such as dogs, so they don’t need treatment. But lice can survive away from a person for up to 10 days; another reason to re-treat in about seven days.

Pediculicides work by damaging the louse nervous system. Examples are permethrin cream rinse (i.e. Nix) and pyrethrins/piperonyl butoxide shampoo (R&C). Isopropyl myristate with cyclomethicone (Resultz) dissolves the louse exoskeleton and dimethicone (Nyda) causes lice to suffocate. All are effective, but you need to follow the directions and clean any contaminated objects.

Items like clothing, bedding, scarves and hats should be washed in hot water and dried in the hot cycle of the dryer. If that’s not possible, then store the items in a plastic bag for at least 14 days to cover the life cycle of lice. Furniture including mattresses should be vacuumed. Combs, brushes and hair accessories can be soaked in hot water for at least 10 minutes.

Regardless of what treatment you choose, wet combing the hair is always recommended. Comb the hair to remove tangles, then with a fine-tooth comb, comb the hair from the scalp to the ends in order to remove dead lice and nits. Dividing the hair into sections will help you keep track, and don’t forget to wipe the comb often. A well lit area and a magnifying glass will help you in this task.

There are various home remedies, but before you use one remember that whatever you apply to your child’s hair, you’ll need to remove later, for example petroleum jelly or oils. One helpful remedy is vinegar, which dissolves the glue that holds nits to the strands of hair. Apply vinegar diluted with equal parts of water and soak the hair for about 10 minutes. If your child has long hair, use a shower cap to keep the hair well soaked.

Re-infestation can always occur and you need to re-treat. There are some reports that lice may have become resistant to the various treatments, but researchers believe that these cases are either a new infestation or that they arise because of treatment failure of the initial infestation, that is, you didn’t follow the product’s instructions, didn’t wet comb, didn’t treat all potentially contaminated items, or didn’t re-treat in about seven days. And, if you missed just one louse at the rate of laying at least eight eggs a day, a re-infestation takes no time at all!

If you just can’t face the idea of treating your child for lice, there are services that will do it for you. There is likely one in your area, but check the cost first because they may be expensive. And, keep in mind that at one time, the only option was to shave off all the hair!

About the author

Contributor

Marie Berry is a lawyer/pharmacist interested in health and education.

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