When Marianne Conway’s* 11-year-old daughter, Jennifer*, complained of an itchy scalp, the Chatham, Ont., mom of two had no idea that within the week, both Jennifer and her eight-year-old sister, Michelle*, would be diagnosed with head lice. The discovery resulted in a meticulous housecleaning, multiple trips to the pharmacy, a scalding hot washing of everything fabric and an uncomfortable feeling of shame.
While lice are a common problem in school-aged children (most prevalent in the first couple of months of school), ridding your home of this pesky nuisance is a process that may require considerable parental patience. Here’s what you need to know.
Lice are mites that feed by drawing blood from the scalp. An adult louse can lay up to nine eggs (nits) a day. A diagnosis of an active head lice infestation requires finding a living louse, which will measure 2″“4 mm long and look like a grey or brown sesame seed, says Joan Mikkelsen, a public health nurse in Dartmouth, N.S. Lice cannot jump or fly, but they can crawl. “They move quickly, making them difficult to spot,” says Mikkelsen. The finding of nits, which are teardrop-shaped and resemble a whitish-coloured poppy seed, means your darling may have a case of head lice.
Lice are most commonly found around the warmer portions of the head, like the nape of the neck and behind the ears, while nits firmly attach to the hair shaft further from the scalp and will not flick off. And head lice do not discriminate: they like clean hair, dirty hair and both short and long hair.
Dr. Alvin Loh, a developmental pediatrician in Toronto, suggests checking for lice by going through the hair first horizontally, separating thin sections and looking for nits near the scalp and lower shaft of the hair.Â Continue thisÂ pattern, checking the nape of the neck, behind the ears, crown and sides of the head.Â Then repeat the processÂ vertically.
If you suspect lice, non-prescription anti-lice treatments (pediculicides) are available. “The medication kills lice, but each nit has to be manually combed or pulled off the hair shaft,” says Elke Groening, a pharmacist in Abbotsford, B.C. To comb out nits, use a fine-tooth or nit comb on wet hair. A second treatment application is usually recommended 10 days after the first to kill any remaining nits.
Head lice and eggs can only survive for up to 48 hours off the scalp, but you’ll want to clean items they may have come in contact with. Brushes, combs and hair accessories should be treated in a solution of anti-lice treatment and very hot water. Groening also recommends “a complete treatment involving vacuuming surfaces (rugs, mattresses, car seats etc.) and washing fabrics (bedding, recently worn clothing, stuffed animals) in hot water and drying them in a hot dryer for at least 20 minutes.” If an item can’t be cleaned either way, placing it a sealed plastic bag for about a week will also do the trick, she says.
While lice are transmitted primarily by direct head-to-head contact, discourage your child from sharing personal items such as hats, scarves and brushes. If your child contracts lice, ask your school when he is welcome back (Mikkelsen says that once treated, your child can return to school), and always notify the school of any new infestation.
Stacey Weeks is a freelance writer and mom from St. Catharines, Ont., who fearlessly deals with head lice but runs from spiders.
Dr. Lindy Harb, a naturopathic doctor from St. Catharines, Ont., recommends a brew made from black walnut capsules and essential tea tree oil.
1 Add 3″“5 drops of high-quality essential tea tree oil to a ready-made tea tree oil shampoo.
2 Shampoo infected hair with the tea tree shampoo.
3 Break open 2″“4 black walnut capsules and place them into 2 cups of hot water and apply the liquid onto the washed scalp and hair.
4 Wrap head with a cloth and leave on for six hours, then wash it out with more tea tree shampoo.
5 Comb out the nits and lice using a lice comb.
6 Repeat three days in a row and then again one week later.
Keep reading for new solutions for head lice.
* names have been changed