Our turn finally came. I have lived a whole 40 years without ever coming face to face with a louse, but times have changed. We are now intimately acquainted. Only recently I was making merry jokes with friends about the fact that my kids must have some kind of inbuilt anti-nit pheromones because almost every other school kid we know has been infested at some point, while our house has remained a nit-free zone. Well, pride cometh before the fall! Last week saw my first encounter with these nasty little blighters – and it turned out I had a lot to learn. Like so many aspects of parenting, it’s a problem mired in myth and legend; the advice the pharmacist gave us completely contradicted the information on some health websites, for example. So frustrating!
I’m sure pestilent hair invasions are second nature to some of you, but it was all very new and surprising to me. So, for any rookies out there, here are the Top 5 things I’ve learned this week about lice, nits, cooties and pediculosis (they’re no fun, whichever term you use).
1. Head lice – the basic facts
What the hell are they? And what do they look like? I really had no idea. Lice are small, wingless insects that snack on blood. They are a pale/translucent colour whilst just hanging out enjoying the view, but they turn brownish red when they’ve had their fangs in your scalp. They look a bit like sesame seeds on legs. They also lay eggs in your hair which take 7-10 days to hatch. ‘Nits’ are the eggs, not the lice. So, treatment is about stopping the whole life cycle – a process that might take a couple of weeks rather than one almighty chemical warfare attack. Head lice don’t cause or carry disease, as such, but they are seriously annoying and can cause allergic reactions in some people.
2. Symptoms of head lice in kids
So, if your head is covered in bugs you’ll know straight away right? Wrong! Miss 6 had been complaining about an itchy head for a week or so. I had carefully checked her scalp daily and found nothing at all – no sign of eggs or bugs. She gets eczema occasionally, so I presumed that was the cause of the itching. Literally overnight the bugs turned up and I noticed them when I brushed her hair. Miss 5 had no itching at all, but the bugs appeared on the same day. According to Queensland Health, the majority of kids will show no symptoms. Itchiness is actually a rare reaction! The only way to detect lice or nits is to be vigilant with checking. Most websites recommend the ‘conditioner method’ which involves putting conditioner into your child’s hair, leaving it for 20 minutes or so, then combing through with a nit comb (which has very fine teeth) and wiping the comb on a white tissue. If they’re there – you’ll see anything from little brown dots to creepy crawling sesame seeds on your tissue. Conditioner doesn’t kill the bugs or eggs, but it does slow them down and loosen them from the hair shaft making them much easier to spot. I will now be doing this weekly – if not more often – for the term of my children’s natural lives!
3. Lice only like clean hair – MYTH
I think everyone has heard this little factoid. In fact, I kind of thought it might be my own children’s aversion to shampoo in their eyes that had staved off an infestation so far! But the truth is that head lice are right into equity, bless ‘em. They don’t care if your hair is clean or dirty, blonde or brown, ponytailed up or in a fluoro pink reverse mohawk. It’s your tasty, warm scalp blood they’re after – and any kind will do. So unless you’re going to shave your child’s head (which used to be the standard treatment!) your family is as likely as any other to get them. Lice also don’t fly or jump from head to head. They make their way from one child to another by swinging on hair, Tarzan-style, during close physical head contact: wrestling, cuddling, sitting really close to each other, basically all the most fun things about being a kid are the risky behaviours.
4. Head lice live in hats, sheets and toys – MYTH
Some of the leading kids’ advice websites still say this, but to quote Queensland and New South Wales health guidelines, lice cannot live away from the head. They’re greedy little buggers and have the need to feed regularly. They will be jumping to their own death if they decide to leave the nest and holiday on your furniture. They CAN be spread if a child uses a hairbrush or pillow immediately after it’s been used by an infected child, but they CAN’T live for days in hats, car seats, mattresses or plush toys. So, strip the beds and so on if it makes you feel better (I did!) but it’s probably more important to save your energy for repeatedly combing hair rather than planning how to reupholster the couch.
5. You must use chemical lice treatments – MYTH(ish)
There are approximately 375,000 different head lice treatments on the market (ok, I don’t have the exact figures, but that’s how many it feels like). They vary widely from highly toxic chemical sprays to shampoos with natural ingredients. You have to decide what sits best with you and your family. Unfortunately, the jury is out as to whether any of the products are particularly effective. It may be that plain old conditioner – or even olive oil – might do the job just as well if you are vigilant with combing the hair out daily. Mostly, chemical treatments are designed to kill – or at least stun – the adult lice. None of them will kill the eggs. So, either way, you still need to keep up the combing and manual disposal (we used a very technical process know as ‘squishing’) of any eggs or bugs. It’s pretty glamorous, I know.
For the record, we used an eco/natural ‘lice bomb’ hair product which we applied to the scalp. We left it on for 10 minutes, then combed through with a nit comb and squished any of the bugs we found. We then had to wash the kids’ hair with ordinary shampoo straight away. I’ve continued using the ‘conditioner method’ daily since then and have found the occasional dead bug or (what I presume are) eggs. The lice bomb treatment has to be reapplied after 7 days to kill any late bloomers.
In my research, I came across a dictionary definition of ‘nitpicking’ as the ‘act of being overly concerned about insignificant details’. But I presume this term was coined in the very olden olden days when lice were so common that fastidiously picking them all out of one’s hair was a waste of precious time better spent on darning sack dresses or emptying the toilet bucket into the river (I have no idea what era I’m talking about). Anyway, careful nitpicking to us clean-ish modern folk is pretty necessary. Aren’t we lucky someone invented products like stinky shampoo and combs that hurt to help us do it?
Now, go and check your kid’s hair! GO!
Here’s a link to the Queensland Health Head Lice Fact Sheet for Primary School students
Do you have any great tips or advice about nits or head lice in children? Success stories or horror stories? I’d love to hear them!
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