Head lice: facts and fallacies

by Tony Pearce RN.
Specialist Trichologist, National Trichology Services

There are many myths and rumors associated with contracting and treating head lice. To help dispel some of these seemingly perennial misconceptions I have been asked to provide this information sheet.

‘Pediculosis Capitis’ in the medical term for head lice. Head lice are tiny mites that live in human hair. Head lice spend their lifecycle on the human scalp and survive by sucking the host’s blood – in much the same way as a mosquito.

The female louse lays about 6-9 small white eggs (called nits) per night when the host is still. The nits are cemented to the hair shaft close to the scalp; the temperature of the scalp being ideal for their maturing and hatching.

The nits hatch in about 6-7 days, with the new lice reaching maturity in about 10 days. Adult lice live for about 20-30 days.

Head lice multiply quickly, and are not only a distressing annoyance but in some countries can also carry serious diseases like typhus and trench fever.

Tell Tale Signs

  • Persistent, intense itching of the back of the head or neck. (The intense itching is a result of an allergic reaction to the lice’s saliva).

  • Tiny white specks firmly attached near the base of individual hair. These are the ‘nits’ or eggs.

  • Seeing the mites themselves.

How does head lice spread?

  • Direct. close contact or by shared combs, brushes or caps.

  • Can also travel from one head to another on a towel, pillow or seat/chair headrest.

  • Borrowing ribbons, scarves or other head coverings.

  • Because head lice prefer an undisturbed environment, they are more commonly seen in people with longer hair and/or who don’t wash/brush their hair regularly.

Some common myths

  • Head lice do not only go to clean hair.

  • Head lice cannot fly but can jump from person to person.

  • They do not live in pillows or mattresses and come out at night!.

Treatment

  • Consult a qualified health professional such as your family doctor.

  • Modern commercial preparations will usually eradicate infestations in a one step shampooing treatment. Again, consult your doctor or pharmacist.

  • Following treatment remove dead mites and nits with a tine-toothed (preferably metal) ‘nit comb’ Robi-combs are reported to be quite effective in trapping mites and nits.

  • Head lice are very contagious. and it is advisable that all family members be treated promptly and at the same time

  • Thoroughly wash, dryclean or dispose of any items that came in contact with the infested scalp These items would include brushes, combs, hairclips, caps, ribbons and hairdressing or household linen.

Some Important Points!

  • The white shells that can easily be seen is the louse’s natural diversionary camouflage. These shells are empty and harmless.

  • The living eggs are laid close to the scalp as the hair grows outward to reveal previously undetected eggs.

  • Treatment failure may then be assumed as the hair grows outward to reveal previously undetected eggs.

If an effective louse/ovicide treatment has been used, no mobile stages of lice will be detected and re-treatment is not necessary

A trichologist is a non-medical specialist of hair loss and scalp problems.


About the Author: Tony Pearce is a Specialist Trichologist & Registered Nurse. He is a founding member of the Society for Progressive Trichology & the official lecturer for Analytical Reference Laboratory (ARL) for hair loss & hormone imbalance. In Australia he can be contacted on +61 2 9542 2700, or through his website at www.hairlossclinic.com.au. Copyright Anthony Pearce

Copyright Anthony Pearce 2005. *References for this article available on request