Itchy and Scratchy? (LICE!)

Dealing with head lice? It’s a touchy subject 

by Darcie Taing R.N, M.N CCHN(C), Public Health Nurse at Ottawa Public Health

When you hear your child has head lice, if you’re like most parents you’ll scratch your head and say, “Why me?” Even though head lice are not linked with poor hygiene, many parents feel shy about asking for help. Don’t be shy. Managing head lice is hard and it takes commitment from caregivers and the child. A lack of knowledge about how lice reproduce and spread, and a lack of action to remove nits, can increase the time and money families spend dealing with these tiny, annoying insects. 

What are head lice, anyway, and why are they more common during childhood? It may surprise you to know head lice cases can be misdiagnosed. Treatments may not be effective if used when head lice are not present. That’s why it’s important to know exactly what lice and nits look like before you begin to treat them.

The head louse is an insect that lives and breeds on your head; it does not spread disease.  Lice are:

  • small, flat, hard-to-see insects 
  • about the size of a sesame seed  
  • greyish-brown in colour 
  • able to crawl from person to person by direct contact
  • passed on through non-living objects such as hair brushes, hats and scarves that touch the head. 

A head lice infestation is confirmed when ten or more live lice are present on the scalp. At this point most kids are beginning to complain of an itchy head. Children with lice should not go to school or to a childcare facility until they receive one properly applied treatment. An effective treatment will kill all head lice present on the scalp, but not nits. A second treatment, seven to 10 days after the first, is required to kill any lice that have hatched from nits.
Nits are:

  • the eggs of the louse that hatch in seven to 10 days 
  • the size of a grain of sand 
  • glued to the hair close to the scalp 
  • most often found at the nape of the neck, temples and forehead.

If one person in the family has head lice, it is possible that other family members will also have them. That’s why it’s important to take action. Tell your child’s teacher, daycare provider and the person in charge of each group, team or club he or she frequents so that other parents can be notified to check their children’s hair. An untreated case of head lice is a common reason for children getting lice again. Since head lice and nits do not survive very long away from the warmth and humidity of the scalp, be sure to discourage sharing hair brushes while anyone is undergoing treatment. Combs and brushes, headgear, bed linens and towels should be washed in hot water. But extra measures can stop with that.  There’s no need to ramp up housecleaning or to use insecticide sprays.

When you have accurate information and access to affordable treatments, head lice can be dealt with effectively and with minimal disruption, so don’t hesitate to be proactive. 



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