Head lice are tiny wingless insects that live in human hair. They are a common problem, particularly in school children aged 4-11 years and it is thought that more than 1 in 3 children in the UK will get head lice at some point during the year.
They are grey-brown in colour, the size of a pinhead when hatched and of a sesame seed when fully grown.
They cannot fly, jump or swim and are spread by head-to-head contact, climbing from the hair of an infected person to the hair of someone else.
A head lice infestation is not the result of dirty hair or poor hygiene. Head lice can affect all types of hair, irrespective of its condition and length.
Head lice only affect humans and cannot be passed on to animals or be caught from them.
Life cycle of head lice
A female head louse lays eggs which cement to hairs (often close to the root), where they are kept warm by the scalp. The eggs are pinhead size and difficult to see.
After 7-10 days, the baby lice hatch and the empty eggshells remain glued in place - these remains are known as nits. Nits glisten white and become more noticeable as the hair grows and carries them away from the scalp.
Head lice feed by biting the scalp and feeding on blood. They take 6-10 days to become fully grown. Once mature, a head louse can crawl from head to head.
A female head louse may start to lay eggs as early as seven days after she has hatched. To break the cycle and stop them spreading, they need to be removed within seven days of hatching.
The diagram below shows the basic life cycle of a louse from nymph through to adult.
Symptoms of head lice
In many cases, head lice cause the scalp to itch. Itching is not due to lice biting the scalp, but by an allergy to the lice.
However, not everyone is allergic to head lice, so you or your child may not notice a head lice infestation.
Even if someone with head lice is allergic to them, itching can take up to three months to develop.
In some cases, a rash may appear on the back of the neck. This is caused by a reaction to lice droppings.
Untreated infestation can result in ‘lousy’ symptoms – general malaise, headache, lethargy – uncommon these days due to increased awareness and successful treatment methods.
More common signs include - small white egg cases attached to the hair
• Black powdery deposits on pillows and clothing
• Live lice may be seen on the individual’s head
Preventing head lice
It's difficult to prevent a head lice infestation. Regular detection combing, preferably on a weekly basis is the best way to find new lice quickly.
National bug busting days are educational days that many schools across the country take part in.
The aim of these sessions is to inform parents and their children about the behaviour of head lice and how to detect and remove them.
Co-ordinating bug busting days across the country can help prevent head lice circulating.
There are three designated bug busting days each year. The dates are:
- 31st January
- 15th June
- 31st October
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