Head lice are persistent little critters and it’s very likely that these itchy insects will find a home in your child’s hair at some point or other.
Head lice are common amongst ages three to 11, and although the thought of an infestation might send shivers down your spine, we’re pleased to report that head lice don’t carry disease and you can get on top of infestations with the help of a humble lice comb.
Here, we look at head lice in closer detail and share some expert advice for banishing these bugs.
What’s the difference between head lice and nits?
Head lice are often called ‘nits’ (or ‘kutis’, ‘kutu bugs’, ‘utu’ or ‘riha’), but in actual fact, head lice are the small, wingless insects that live on the human scalp, and nits are the eggs of adult head lice that cling to the hair shaft, near the scalp.
While some head lice are laying eggs, others may be hatching, and this continuing life cycle means that lice treatments aren’t a one-time wonder. Repeat treatments are needed to remove current and future head lice.
How are head lice transmitted?
All ages and all people can get head lice, but children are prime candidates because they learn and play in close proximity.
Head lice crawl from head-to-head through close contact, and although they can’t fly or jump between human hosts, head lice can spread easily in the early learning environment, at school, among family members and even when teens are taking selfies.
Head lice will happily stay on your child’s scalp when they go swimming or have a shower, but they usually die within about 24 hours if they’re not on a human head (e.g. if they find themselves on bed linen, clothing or furniture).
How can you tell if your child has head lice?
Head lice are blood suckers and their bites can leave your child’s scalp feeling itchy and scratchy, particularly around the nape of the neck, behind their ears and on the crown of their head.
Itchiness isn’t always associated with head lice, though. It’s possible for your child to have no symptoms, but you can confirm a case of head lice by looking closely at their hair and scalp and finding small, oblong eggs attached firmly to the root of their hair and live lice moving through it.
Alternatively, the Ministry of Education says the first indication you might have is when your education provider tells you that there’s a head lice outbreak.
If you do find head lice, it’s important to check your whole family’s hair and embark on a treatment program (at the same time) for everyone who’s infested.
Do you need to exclude your child from child care, kura or school while they have head lice?
If live head lice are spotted in your child’s hair while they’re at their early childhood education (ECE) service, you’ll generally be asked to collect your child from care and will need to start treatment before they can go back.
Likewise, children with live lice should stay away from their kura or school until treatment has started.
Once treatment has started, the Ministry of Health says your child shouldn’t be excluded and you shouldn’t be asked to keep them at home.
The Ministry of Education recommends a ‘check, treat, inform’ approach to deal with head lice, and this means you should:
- Check your child’s hair regularly (once a week in school-aged children),
- Treat them if you find live lice or eggs, and
- Inform your service or school if your child has lice or nits, so they can ask the other parents to check hair and also make adjustments in the classroom (such as removing the dress-up box or reducing close group work where heads are touching). You should tell any other close contacts about your child’s head lice so they can check, too.
What are the best ways to treat head lice?
In New Zealand, there are two recommended ways to get rid of head lice:
- Wet combing, using a cheap conditioner and a fine-toothed nit comb, or
- Dimethicone 4% lotion, which is a fully subsidised head lice treatment your doctor can prescribe.
Wet combing is a chemical-free method of finding and removing head lice, if done properly.
It involves you methodically combing conditioner through your child’s hair, and wiping the conditioner (and any lice and nits) onto a paper towel or tissue. If you find head lice or nits, try to repeat the steps every day if possible, or at least every two to three days, only stopping when you don’t find any head lice or nits for three days straight.
There are step-by-step instructions here, and you’ll need to check your whole family’s hair twice a week for the next fortnight to make sure the head lice are gone.
Dimethicone 4% lotion is a very effective head lice treatment that is put onto dry hair, left to dry naturally and then shampooed out after at least eight hours.
This treatment must be repeated after seven days, to kill any newly hatched head lice, and the step-by-step instructions are here.
If you’d prefer to try another chemical or herbal treatment, KidsHealth says you should get advice from your pharmacist, doctor or nurse about what treatment to use, and you should never try to treat head lice with fly spray, kerosene or treatments meant for animals.
How can you help to prevent head lice?
There’s no product on the market that will prevent head lice, but you can take the following steps to help stop head lice from spreading:
- Brush your child’s hair every day, or remind them to do this (this may help to kill or hurt head lice and stop them from laying eggs),
- Tie back long hair or keep it cut short,
- Avoid sharing hair brushes, combs, headbands, hats, helmets, clothing hooks etc. with others,
- Check your child’s hair weekly for head lice, and treat any infestation straightaway, and
- Work with your ECE service, kura or school to treat an infestation, e.g. by telling them that your child has head lice and following any advice they provide.
At the end of the day, head lice are a fact of life, and although it can be tiresome to be tangled up treatments, it’s important to take the time to remove head lice and nits, and remain vigilant as these annoying critters follow our children from ECE to school. Good luck!