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Back to school

September is here and the children are going back to school, which as well as new shoes, uniform and pencil cases means the possibility of head lice. The worry of many parents, these little critters are an incredibly common infestation, especially amongst those at primary school due to the nature of their interaction with others – lice only get passed on through close head-to-head contact; they cannot jump or fly and are only very rarely transmitted from hats or hair brushes. Catching lice from furniture is even less likely as lice will die within 12 to 24 hours if they fall off a head (which is rare in itself) and they cannot live on animals at all. Head lice can live on any head – they are not an indication of cleanliness or lack of washing!

Symptoms of head lice may include an itchy scalp, but this is a result of allergy, not the lice biting, and so not all children will suffer. Likewise, an itchy scalp with no lice present may be the result of another problem such as eczema, psoriasis or fungal infection and should be discussed with a nurse, doctor or pharmacist.

The best way to detect lice is to comb through wet hair with a fine-tooth comb, looking carefully for any moving lice or new eggs near the scalp. If you only find eggs and these are more than half an inch from the scalp, it is likely these are from a previous infection and are not viable to hatch. Treatment may be necessary if you find both live lice and new eggs close to the scalp.

Treatment is available to buy from pharmacies; a trip to your GP is not usually needed. There are various products available including insecticides and oily products that suffocate and dehydrate the lice; you can discuss these with your pharmacist. None of these treatments will stop your child from catching new lice, they will only kill the ones there at the time of application.

Treatments are fairly effective if used exactly as instructed, but usually recommend retreatment in 7 days in case any eggs survived. If wet combing is used alongside, the cure rate is much higher and this combing should be done regularly to remove new lice and prevent a large infestation catching hold. Simply leaving a thick application of conditioner on the hair for two hours before combing and rinsing has been shown to kill a large number of lice in some clinical studies. Some people advocate a tea tree based shampoo or conditioner to try and repel lice from moving onto their child’s hair, but there isn’t any hard evidence to prove this actually works. Much better is either keeping hair short, or tying longer hair back, as well as routine wet combing after school to pick out any new lice before they have time to lay eggs.