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25 Nov 2017 12:59
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  •   Home > News > International

    Head lice: How to avoid them, get rid of them and keep them away

    The scratching, the combing, the fear of reinfestation — there are few things more frustrating than trying to get rid of head lice.


    There are few things more frustrating than trying to get rid of head lice.

    Ask any parent who's spent hours painstakingly combing through their child's hair — only to see them start scratching their head a few days later.

    Despite the irritation and frustration that accompany a lice infestation, many of us take some comfort in the knowledge lice only like to nest in clean hair. But do they?

    And what's the best way to get rid of these harmless but pesky little critters?

    Public health entomologist Dr Cameron Webb helps us nit-pick common lice myths and misconceptions.

    How do you catch head lice?

    "You must have direct head-to-head contact for head lice to move from one person to another," Dr Webb says.

    Lice can't jump or fly — they don't have wings. Instead, they crawl along strands of hair from one head to another.

    This is one of the reasons why lice are most common among primary school children — they often put their heads together while playing, cuddling, or doing group work.

    When it comes to sharing hats, towels or bedding, Dr Webb says the risk of catching lice is low.

    "Head lice love being on the hair, and love being in that warm, humid environment," he said.

    "As soon as they come off our head, they're incredible clumsy — they dry out and die quickly.

    "That's why it's unlikely you're going to pick up head lice from other belongings or household items."

    While you might be tempted to do a spring clean, Dr Webb says your time would be better spent minimising head-to-head contact.

    "Take the time to make sure your children's hair is pulled back nice and tight when they're going to school," he said.

    "That's probably one of the best ways you can stop your child from picking up head lice in the first place."

    Do head lice prefer clean or dirty hair?

    Head lice don't have a preference when it comes to clean or dirty hair — they'll get on anyone's hair if they get the chance.

    "We find that you can get head lice on almost every type of hair imaginable — thick, thin, long, short, clean, dirty — it really doesn't make a difference," Dr Webb said.

    Having particularly thick or long hair might increase your chances of picking up head lice, simply because you have more available hair.

    But the presence of head lice in no way indicates poor hygiene habits or an unclean living environment.

    "Sometimes you can just be at the wrong place at the wrong time and the child picks it up," Dr Webb said.

    What's the best way to treat head lice?

    There are generally two different approaches to treating head lice.

    The first is over-the-counter chemical treatments (or lice shampoos) which you can buy at a supermarket or pharmacy.

    "These contain either an insecticide or some sort of plant-derived product, and can be effective at killing head lice," Dr Webb said.

    It's important to apply the chemical treatment as directed, he says, to ensure it's effective.

    Dr Webb notes, however, people should not overuse insecticides, as head lice populations can become increasingly resistant to them.

    "It's probably one of the reasons why the conditioner-and-comb method is so effective … because head lice won't be resistant to that," he said.

    That brings us to the second approach: what experts call the conditioner-and-comb method.

    "That involves rubbing a cheap, pale-coloured conditioner through your child's hair. What that does is it stuns the lice, so it immobilises them," Dr Webb said.

    Then, using a specially designed lice comb, you systematically comb through your child's hair to remove the lice.

    The key with both treatments is to repeat the process a week later. While the initial treatments will kill or remove the adult head lice, neither are 100 per cent effective at removing head lice eggs — also known as nits.

    "The eggs will hatch in less than a week, so you just allow them all to hatch, comb through and repeat the process again, and remove as many lice as possible," Dr Webb said.

    He recommends setting aside two Sunday nights, putting on your child's favourite DVD, and carefully working through their hair.

    "The secret to this is getting cooperation from your child to sit still long enough so you can systematically comb through their hair."

    Does tea-tree oil work?

    Tea-tree oil is a popular remedy for treating head lice, and there are range of products available and registered for use in Australia.

    "There's evidence to suggest that it does work, but not significantly better than any of the other insecticide methods or the conditioner-and-comb method," Dr Webb said.

    When it comes to other home remedies, Dr Webb says parents should be cautious.

    "We have to be mindful that some urban myths and home remedies for removing head lice can expose children to possible irritating substances … chemicals that may not be necessarily registered for use on children's heads."

    He recommends the conditioner-and-comb method or an over-the-counter product.

    "The secret ingredient really is patience and persistence."

    Can you have head lice and not know it?

    Sadly, yes.

    "It's possible that there's head lice in someone's hair for quite a while and it's never really noticed," Dr Webb said.

    So if you see something crawling, say something. Or at least don't put your head close by.

    © 2017 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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