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What are head lice and what do they look like?

Head lice are tiny, blood-sucking insects. They can't fly or hop as they have no wings or strong legs but they can crawl fast!
Baby lice are only about the size of a full-stop, are translucent and very tricky to spot.  Adult head lice are 2-4 mm long red-brown to grayish white and camouflage to blend in.

nits or head lice eggs

Nits (louse eggs) are only about the size of a sesame seed and are glued at an angle to a strand of hair. To remove a nit you'll have to slide it all the way down a strand of hair with your fingernails. Nits take 7-10 days to hatch, are yellowy coffee coloured ovals and are usually near the crown of the head, around the ears or the nape of the neck.

What is the life cycle of head lice?headlice life cycle

  • Lice can live for a month laying up to 10 eggs a day
  • Eggs takes 7-10 days to hatch
  • A nymph takes 7-10 days to become an adult louse.

Who gets headlice? Just children?

Anyone. Lice are not fussy about your age, sex or hygiene. Lice are transmitted mostly through head to head contact so are more common in young, school-aged children. Its easy to get head lice but hard to get rid of them so if your child has nits have your entire family checked.

How do I know if my child has nits?

Common symptoms include:

  • Itchy scalp
  • A tickling of something moving on their scalp or through their hair
  • Red marks caused by excessive scratching or a red rash on the back of the neck.

Is it “nits” or “lice” or “Louse”?

In common use these terms are often interchangeable.
Strictly speaking though:

  • Lice is the plural of louse, the insect stage of the lifecycle
  • Nits are unhatched head lice eggs.

Where should I look for Lice?

Start near the scalp, around the ears and near the nape of the neck, then check the rest of the scalp. Not sure its a nit?  Blow on it and if it stays attached to the hair it could be a nit. If you find eggs you probably have lice bugs too because they don’t lay themselves.

Can I wash out headlice?

No, lice can hold their breath for up to 2 hours. They lock their claws onto the hair and hang on and the eggs are glued to the hair. Lice can shut down their nervous system too, and can remain submerged, safe and sound, even in stuff designed to kill them. In lab tests, lice played dead for two long hours!

Does having head lice mean I am dirty?

Getting head lice does not mean you are unclean, they actually prefer clean hair. Dirty hair won’t prevent them from laying eggs in your hair though so don’t try that.

Will a haircut help?

Cutting your hair won’t get rid of lice or stop you from catching them. However it does help to have shorter hair when you’re removing them yourself - long or thick hair can be hard work. Remember long hair does dangle more so you may want it tied back especially when at school.

My head doesn't itch, can I still have lice?

Yes, itching is caused by an allergic reaction to lice saliva. Only half of those affected develop itching. When the bugs are removed the irritation may take a little time to go away.

Are headlice dangerous?

No, they are just very annoying! Reactions to lice are frequently mild compared with chemicals present in most lice shampoos.

How do I know I have got rid of them?

If you are nit free for 14 days straight, you’ve managed to eradicate your head lice.

Can I prevent my child getting lice?

There are many recipes for homemade head lice repellent, some less effective than others. Many parents swear by essential oils like tea tree and eucalyptus oil. Both smell strongly and are natural antiseptics.

You can mix a few drops with your normal shampoo and conditioner and leave it to work a little longer than usual.

Other options are to mix the oils with warm water, and spray on using a spray bottle or mix them with olive oil and coconut oil and massage in.

There are some behaviours you can discourage too, like:

  • swapping hats with other kids
  • sharing combs, brushes, or other hair accessories
  • using someone else’s sleeping bag and pillow when sleeping away from home.

Sharing is great - except when you're sharing lice!

Are nits more common in summer?

Children get head lice any time of the year if they come in contact with another person with lice. Since children come in contact with each other more often when they are in school, that’s when they are more likely to catch them.

Lisa Daniel Head Lice removal and hair specialist

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