Head lice is a topic that schools can never ignore, says Maureen Moody. Here she brings teachers up to date on the topic.

Parents’ biggest fear

One in five parents will not tell the school or other parents with children in the same class that their child has nits or head lice. This is what a parental survey by Which? and Lyclear revealed. Sixty-one per cent of parents told researchers that head lice were their biggest school fear. It is almost inevitable, however, that these unwelcome visitors will appear in a child’s hair at some point — and reappear, despite treatment.

So is the problem one simply for parents, or does the school have a role to play?

Facts

Head lice are parasitic insects that live in the hair of humans. With hook-like claws on each of their six legs, they hold onto the hair of their host, close to the roots, and feed on blood. The lifecycle of a head louse is approximately six weeks.

  • Nits (the eggs) take 7–10 days to hatch into nymphs.

  • Nymphs take about a week to mature into fully developed head lice.

  • Adults live for about 30 days.

Successive generations of parents still have misunderstandings about head lice, despite regular publicity. It is understandable; head lice are classed by many people in the same category as fleas, bed bugs or body lice — a sign of neglect and dirt. But, of course, that is not the case — head lice appear on the heads of children, especially in the primary years, regardless of their circumstances or home background. These parasites will infect both clean and dirty hair and long and short hair, and there is not much that parents can do to prevent it happening.

It is not true that these insects can be spread by the sharing of towels, clothes or hats, or that they can jump or fly from head to head, or swim. Lice have a need for food and warmth; they walk from one head to another and can do so very swiftly. The fact that younger children tend to work and play with heads very close to each other explains why lice affect younger children more than older ones. And often girls are affected more than boys as they tend to collaborate more closely in play.

Parents tend to worry more about lice when children go back to school as they think the lice will only be spread there. However, infection is common during school holidays, as well as during term time.

Symptoms

Many people believe that itching and scratching is a sure sign of lice, and indeed many children will show this symptom. However, lice do not always make a child’s scalp itch, and scratching may not indicate the presence of lice.

Treatment

Untreated, head lice would circulate ad infinitum. There are several different brands of treatment product on the market. Whichever parents choose, they should not assume it will work with one application — no treatment is guaranteed to kill all lice and nits. Community Hygiene Concern (CHC), a non-profit organisation set up to help schools and others with head lice, says, “Parents must learn to check the efficacy of any treatment choice because none guarantees a complete cure”. But persistence can be rewarded; a parent whose child had dreadlocks reported that it took four treatments with one product to clear the lice.

Traditional remedies involve pesticide treatments that can have unpleasant side effects. Also, the continued use of products can result in non-lethal residues on the hair to which lice can become immune. This means ever stronger doses will be needed to kill them off, which can be even more detrimental for the child.

There is an organic, non-toxic shampoo on the market — a remedy based on a special coconut oil. The properties of the oil were first observed by a voluntary worker in Brazil who noticed a complete absence of a lice problem in local school children.

Checking for lice

Parents should be encouraged to inspect their children’s scalps regularly. Checking a child’s scalp needs to be thorough, as the signs can easily be missed, even when using a fine-tooth comb on short, straight hair. Metal combs are also not suitable; as CHC comments, these are primarily nit combs. “Lice caught between the tightly spaced teeth remain unnoticed against the metal and can be combed back into the hair unharmed at subsequent strokes”.

Checking should be done on wet hair as the lice stay still when thoroughly wet, but move away from any disturbance when hair is damp or dry.

Bug Buster Kit

CHC assesses methods of detection and cure, working with families and schools. It says that, to date, the only re-usable treatment for head lice, tested in independent clinical trials that have been reported in peer-reviewed journals, is the Bug Buster Kit. The kit does not rely on neuro-toxic pesticides or other expensive ingredients. Instead it works by breaking the louse’s lifecycle. A specially designed comb is used with the family’s normal shampoo and conditioner, but the instructions need to be followed rigorously.

Contained in the kit is a comb which will easily pass between the hairs, but which has such narrow spacing between the teeth that even the smallest, newly-hatched lice will be trapped. The exact balance between the slim handle and deeply bevelled edge ensures that the teeth slip into the roots and between the hairs at the optimum angle. When the comb is swept to the end of the hair tresses, the lice are lifted out and remain motionless ready to be wiped off onto a tissue.

The Bug Busting Kit is a registered medical device and can be obtained by NHS prescription free for children, or purchased at a pharmacy or from CHC.

National Bug Busting Days

CHC and the Department of Health organise National Bug Busting Days — an informed, united self-care initiative, co-ordinated through schools and nurseries three times a year on 31 January, 15 June and 31 October.

Using these dates is useful, as carrying out checks and treatments on a whole school basis, synchronising it with other schools and nurseries, helps to lessen the chance of lice circulating from head to head and back again. To make the issue more acceptable for reluctant young children, Oxford University Press has published a book in the Kipper series, Kipper Gets Nits, which is widely available.

Prevention

Unfortunately no head lice treatment will prevent the parasites returning, and parents need to contain their enthusiasm for preventive treatment. They will need to remain vigilant and check their children’s heads regularly.

Here schools can play an important part. They should:

  • advise parents when there is an outbreak

  • encourage parents to advise the school as soon as they notice a child has head lice

  • give simple, clear advice on how to treat lice

  • reassure parents of the routine nature of the issue

  • remind parents to check their child’s head regularly, and how — a note at the start of every term is a good idea.

Last reviewed 1 October 2012