Banish the Itch: How to Get Rid of Head Lice

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how to tackle head lice

We all know the expression “feeling lousy” but have you ever wondered where it originated? It actually comes from the debilitated feeling people can suffer when they have a long-term head lice infection. Fortunately, head lice infections rarely get to that point today, but they’re still surprisingly common and a source of frustration to parents everywhere. Here are the main facts you need to know about how to beat them.

What are head lice?

You can get lice in several areas of your body, but head lice only live on the head. They feed on blood, biting into the scalp, and are especially likely to be found behind the ears and above the neck. Head lice lay eggs (i.e. nits) which are glued to the shaft of individual hairs. Head lice also leave saliva deposits and feces, and it’s often an allergic reaction to these which causes the characteristic itching (rather than a reaction to the head lice themselves). Head lice need warmth, so they can’t survive away from the body for long.

How do head lice spread?

You can’t catch head lice unless you have direct, head-to-head contact with someone who already has them. Because they die quickly when away from body heat, you’re unlikely to get them just by using someone else’s hat or by sitting near them (as head lice can’t jump!). However, children frequently get close to each other when playing, so they contract head lice easily.

What are the symptoms?

In the early weeks, you’ll probably not notice any symptoms at all. However, as the eggs hatch, the number of head lice will grow significantly. If you feel itching because of a head lice infection, you’ve probably had lice for about three months. In severe infestations, you may actually see live lice moving around in the hair. A close inspection of the hair shafts may reveal the presence of nits—little white, oval eggs that are firmly attached to the hair. Scratching can cause broken skin and may lead to an infection. It’s vital that you always eliminate other possible causes—like dandruff or eczema—before assuming that an itchy head is caused by head lice.

How can I avoid getting them?

There are steps you can take to lessen the likelihood of you or your child getting head lice. It’s a myth that head lice only like dirty hair, but good hygiene will help to prevent them from flourishing. In addition, keep long hair tied back, so it’s less likely to brush against other people’s hair.

Prevention is better than cure

Establishing a good routine for preventing a head lice infection can go a long way towards reducing or even eliminating the chance of getting head lice. The lice need to move around in order to breed, and using conditioner and a nit comb twice weekly can break the cycle. Apply conditioner directly to the head, and rub it in well. Using a fine-toothed nit comb, systematically work your way through the hair, strand by strand—this breaks the legs of the lice, so they can’t breed. Contracting head lice is very unlikely if you do this regularly.

What do I do if I get head lice?

Firstly, remember that head lice are very common, so don’t be embarrassed. You can buy over-the-counter treatments, but lots of them contain harsh chemicals that can small unpleasant and may have an adverse effect on people with breathing problems. Also, many people aren’t comfortable with the idea of using such strong chemicals on their hair and skin.

Home remedies for treating head lice

There are plenty of home remedies that can be applied to the hair and left overnight under a shower cap, before being rinsed off the following morning. Oil is a popular choice, including baby oil or olive oil—simply apply it neat, and rub it in well. Leave it for at least an hour (or overnight), then wash the hair thoroughly.

Alternatively, equal parts salt and vinegar can be sprayed onto the hair until it’s saturated. Leave under a shower cap for two hours, then wash out. Tea tree oil is a well-known home remedy too. Add a teaspoonful to an ounce of natural shampoo and 3tbsp of coconut oil, then mix well. Apply to the hair and leave for 30 minutes before rinsing.

A head lice infection can be uncomfortable, and persistent infestations can drive parents to distraction. However, a good preventative routine and some safe home remedies can help you to get the problem under control.