Head Lice: how to get rid of them


13. 02. 2020 Paediatrics

Have you noticed lice in your own or your child’s hair? Don’t worry, their presence isn’t an indication of poor hair hygiene. However, they do spread quickly so you need to treat them as soon as you spot them. The good news is that treating lice no longer involves having to shave all of your hair off.


Head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis): under a magnifying glass.

A head louse infestation is classified as a parasitic infection. There are three species of lice that can spread on humans: head lice, body lice and pubic lice, out of which the most common is the head (hair) louse as it is most often found and spread among children’s groups e.g. schools and summer camps. 

A head louse is a tiny wingless insect that spends its entire life on the human scalp, (especially at the temples and behind the ears) feeding exclusively on human blood. It measures up to 4mm in size and thanks to its three pairs of clawed feet, it can get a firm grasp on the smooth strands of hair. The female lays eggs (nits) directly onto the scalp, attaching them to hair strands with its own, biologically made glue. At this developmental stage, the nits may resemble dandruff, but unlike it, they cannot be removed easily just by washing- they require a physical removal. At about a week old, the nits turn into larvae which immediately start feeding off the blood, during which they release an irritant substance into the skin of the host. The life span of a head-louse is roughly less than a month.


Agitation and endless itching

The symptoms of a head full of lice include tickling, persistent itching and scratching which can lead to small bloody wounds that are at risk of getting infected. Head lice can cause a lot of discomfort, however, on their own, it is not a cause of any serious illnesses. Having a head crawling full of these ectoparasites can cause irritation, loss of concentration, or sleeping difficulties, which can lead to insomnia and fatigue. 


Host and transmission 

The head louse isn’t very picky with its hosts; the likelihood of contracting lice isn’t determined by age, gender, hygiene, or social class. From a preventative perspective, the recommendation is to try to avoid places with a risk of contracting lice. At present, the incidence of lice is significantly increasing around the world, and the Czech Republic is not an exception. The explanation for this is the increasing resistance of lice to existing treatments. It is a parent’s obligation under law to ensure that their child gets proper treatment and prevent further spread. Insufficient or incorrect treatment can cause health complications as well as prolonged treatment. 

Contrary to popular belief, lice do not jump, but rather migrate. You can come into contact with them anywhere, especially in large groups of people in close proximity such as on public transport, in the theatre or the cinema, at work, and in schools. For lice to migrate, they have to be in direct hair-to-hair contact. As girls generally tend to have longer hair, they are at a much higher risk of contracting lice tend to attach better to long strands of hair. The sharing of clothes, pillows, bed sheets or towels also poses a risk of transmission. Another route of transmission is when the lice migrate to the fur of a pet and are then passed on to a different member of the family. 


What to do when lice appear in your social group? 

There are certain methods of prevention that do work, but they are not a hundred per cent effective. Essential oils from certain plants can work similarly to repellents. Some people swear by the use of tea tree oil on affected areas, while others mix eucalyptus oil into their normal shampoos, and some rinse their hair with vinegar. If there has been an outbreak/lice infestation in your near area, it may be a good idea to start using antiparasitic toiletries of natural origin. 


How to get rid of lice? 

If you start to notice small, almost transparent insects with shiny white sacs appearing in your hair, do not try to catch them, but rather focus on killing them. You can do this through the use of oil-based pharmacy products, which essentially suffocate the insect. A similar effect can be achieved through the use of home-made hair wraps using body lotions, vegetable oils mixed with Alpa, or conditioner. In order to ensure they have the maximum effect,  it is best to leave them on overnight. The oil/fat component in the products reliably suffocates the lice. In the morning, thoroughly wash out any residual product with shampoo, and using a fine-toothed comb (which can usually be purchased with any specialist lice-treatment, or can also be bought on its own), brush out any dead insects. Tweezers can also be an effective tool. You can tell a live louse from a dead louse quite simply, as a dead louse will burst immediately after being removed. 

“Some treatments only temporarily daze the louse, and if you don’t physically remove them either through brushing or manually removing hair by hair, they can regain their strength after some time and start reproducing again.” says paediatrician Dr. Petr Žáček.

Another class of treatments are serums or solutions containing insecticides which aim to paralyse the lice’s nervous system. However, this option is not as effective due to its short term effects. Similarly, it is advised to be cautious with using certain spray forms of treatment as they provide protection for only a couple of hours. It’s enough to forget once and the louse start celebrating their comeback! 

In recent years, more and more people are starting to rely on natural products against which lice haven’t yet built up and immunity. In comparison to the more chemical treatments, they are more easy on the wallet. Independent on what treatment path you chose, ensure you follow the instructions precisely. 

Ensure to repeat the treatment procedure after 8-10 days. Most treatments don’t exterminate all the nits at once, and therefore by repeating the treatment several days later ensures the destruction of any new lice that may have hatched from previously unaffected nits.”


Thorough clean-up

Successful eradication of lice isn’t complete without a thorough household cleanse. Wash bedding, bath towels, caps, clothes and plush toys at a higher temperature. Experts recommend subsequent drying in a dryer. Place non-washable items in the freezer. Carefully vacuum the beds, mattresses, carpets, seat cushions and discard the bag from the vacuum cleaner. A little carelessness is enough to start a new lice outbreak. Disinfect tweezers, combs, brushes, buckles, all contaminated hair accessories.


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