Head lice aren’t dangerous, but their bites are extremely itchy (and many schools and daycares won’t let you back until they’re gone). We asked Glen Ward, a paediatrician in Surrey, BC, how to identify and treat a case of lice.
Step 1: Spot them Head scratching may signal head lice, but the bugs or their eggs (a.k.a. nits) need to be visible on the scalp for a reliable diagnosis, says Ward. It’s best to have your child checked out by your doctor or a public health nurse to be sure, but to check yourself, part the hair in small sections using a comb, then slowly and methodically inspect the entire scalp. Nits are about the size of a grain of sand and can be yellow, tan or whitish-grey. They’ll be stuck to the root of the hair, next to the scalp. Adult lice move quickly, but can usually be found behind ears or along the neck.
Step 2: Treat them According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, shampoos and cream rinses containing pyrethrin and permethrin are safe for use on kids of all ages, but ones containing lindane shouldn’t be applied to little ones under two, and need to be used with caution on older kids. “To be safe, follow the package directions carefully, don’t leave any of these products on your child’s scalp longer than directed, and be sure to rinse thoroughly,” says Ward. Treat over a sink, instead of in the bath or shower, to prevent contact with other areas of the body. Repeat the treatment in seven to 10 days to ensure you’ve killed all of the lice and nits.
Step 3: Stop them from spreading After you’re clear, it’s safe for kids to go back to school, but teach them not to share hairbrushes, hats or headphones to prevent future infestations. To stop lice from spreading to other family members, launder the bedding and recently worn clothing of the infected person, avoid sharing pillows and check everyone’s hair regularly to keep tabs on the situation. “Lice don’t live for long on their own, so they won’t infest your house,” says Ward.
Tip: DIY treatment Looking for a non-insecticidal option? Cover your child's head with a thick coat of conditioner mixed with about 10 drops of tea tree oil, and let it sit for about 20 minutes before combing out the now-smothered lice and nits.
A version of this article appeared in our September 2012 issue with the headline “From scratch,” p. 36.