With the back-to-school season in full swing, many parents of young children face a common source of panic: the human head louse. Lice have coexisted with people since before the dawn of civilization. They live very close to the warm scalp and feed on our blood. Fortunately, they do not carry diseases and thus, pose no actual danger to our general health. The worst possible outcome is secondary infection due to excessive scratching. Unfortunately, these parasites may cause a very itchy scalp and much distress, as they can be difficult to detect and even harder to eradicate. Millions of Canadians are infested annually, and many myths and misconceptions often circulate among those of which are at risk or involved.
First off, let’s cover the facts. Lice have three life stages: the egg (nit), nymph, and adult. Nits are very small and hard to see with the naked eye. Adult female lice may lay up to eight nits per day, which become firmly attached to the base of the hair shaft. Nits are white or light brown in colour, and they hatch into nymphs after about one week. A pinhead-sized nymph leaves behind a more easily visible open egg shell, which is frequently misidentified as a viable nit. Adult lice vary in colour between grayish-white to light brown, and are about the size of a sesame seed. Adult lice live about one month and feed several times each day. Lice must remain in close contact with their human host to survive. They will die after about 1 to 2 days without a blood meal.
Unfortunately, as with any issue that causes distress, there are many myths and mistruths about head lice. Firstly, catching lice has nothing to do with poor personal hygiene or lack of cleanliness. In fact, anyone with hair (even short hair) is at risk, including adults. The most likely way to catch lice is through head-to-head contact. It is much less likely to catch lice through the sharing of hats, combs, or brushes, although one should not share such items with individuals suspected of an infestation. Close personal contact is the greatest risk factor, thus, this can be most commonly seen among young children and their parents. Due to this, any time lice is discovered, all members of the household should be examined to rule out additional cases. Finally, lice cannot jump or fly through the air from person to person.
Although the internet may overcomplicate this, there are many good treatments for head lice. One will find a myriad of natural treatments, several over-the-counter (OTC) shampoos, and a few prescription medications available to eradicate lice. Certain non-drug approaches, such as mayonnaise or olive oil application, high heat blow drying, or water immersion may produce little to no effect. OTC drug treatments are often effective, but some lice have become resistant to OTC shampoos and applications. Finally, there are a handful of prescription topical and oral treatments that will effectively eradicate lice. Patient age, general health, and risk factors must be considered when choosing certain prescription treatment options. Regardless of treatment choice, a nit comb is required. This is a very fine-toothed metal or plastic comb that is essential for wet-combing to dislodge live nits, nymphs, and adult lice. It is a key tool to aid in the eradication of lice. If you know or suspect you are dealing with a lice infestation, please feel free to book an appointment with DermCafé provider for a discussion regarding treatment options if necessary.