Does the word "nits" make you shudder (and involuntarily scratch your head)? Head lice are back to school along with our kids. What's a parent to do? Yvonne Walus has answers.
Nits — what are they?
Scientifically speaking, nits are eggs that are laid by female head lice, but in ordinary language, the word nits (or kuti bugs, or cooties) is used to indicate a louse infestation, whether it’s eggs, nymphs (juveniles), or adult insects. Whatever you call them, head lice are wingless insects, hard, oblong, and at, about 2-3mm long. They can be grey-yellow (almost translucent), brown, or black in colour. The eggs are glued to strands of hair very close to the scalp. After nine days, the eggs hatch, leaving behind a white eggshell.
How do you know if your child has them?
The school will usually send you a notice if there is an outbreak of head lice in your child’s classroom. When you get the notice, it’s a good idea to invest in a specialised fine-toothed lice comb, and comb your child’s hair every night. If you see a live insect or an egg on the comb, you know you have a challenge to deal with. Even if there are no notices, it’s a good idea to know what symptoms to look for. Your child will usually start scratching long before you see anything in their hair. These will be short, intense head scratches, just a second or two in one spot. Even if you look and see nothing, it doesn’t mean it’s all clear. Keep observing your child – if they scratch a few more times, move on to the fine-tooth combing stage.
How do children get them?
Head lice spread by crawling from one person’s hair to another’s. Children putting their heads close together, sharing sunhats or theatre props, co-sleeping, and even using somebody else’s towel can all create conditions for an insect to switch dwellings, so to speak. It can happen to clean hair and dirty hair, straight and curly hair, long as well as short.
Note, however, that lice only spread by close contact, as they cannot jump, swim, or fly. Also, please rest assured that household pets do not carry head lice – only fleas. Head lice are a human parasite and can only survive on human blood.
Scary fact: Each head louse lives around 40 days, and the female can lay between 7 and 10 small pale eggs every night. That's a lot! The eggs are small and hard (like a grain of salt) and are normally pale grey in colour.
Can lice drown?
The short answer: No. The long answer: Also no. Washing hair, swimming (whether in salty or chlorinated water), and even scuba diving will not kill head lice – both the eggs and the hatched insects will stay on the scalp. The insects can survive under water for 14 hours solid, and the eggs much longer than that.
How do you treat nits?
If your child does have nits, or if you think they may have it, act right away.
The earlier you start the treatment, the easier it is to control the infestation. The secret is to make the hair easy to comb through, suffocate the insects, then comb them out (this will get rid of the adults as well as the eggs), making sure you’ve combed through every strand of hair. This can take time, so be patient. You may have to keep your child occupied with TV or a computer game. Whether you use a natural product or a chemical one to kill the lice, is up to you. If in doubt, ask the school or the pharmacist for advice.
Keep in mind that it’s not only heads that need treating: It’s also your house and the child’s car seat. But you don’t have to go overboard. Pediatric Hair Solutions has the following advice: “Lice can only live away from the human head for 48 hours or less, so only the items that have come into contact with person’s head will need to be cleaned. Items to clean include the infected person’s bedding, hairbrushes and combs, stuffed toys on the bed, and any hats, scarves or helmets worn recently.”
How long do they take to go away?
With proper treatment, head lice infestations usually take a fortnight to combat, with treatment repeated after seven days to catch any new hatchlings. Be very thorough and make sure you comb out all the insects as well as the eggs, to prevent self-reinfestation.
Do kids need to stay home from school?
“No,” reads the advice on education.govt.nz, “the school shouldn't exclude your child or ask you to keep them at home because they have lice. You don't need to keep your child at home while you're treating lice either.”
What happens if there's a reinfection?
The annoying thing is, even if you get rid of all the lice and eggs, your child can always bring home more. Vigilance is important: Make a point of combing your children’s hair with a fine-toothed comb every week, and be on the lookout for any scratching. WebMD suggests taking the following steps if your child comes home with a new batch of head lice:
1. Wash and dry bedding, clothing, car seat covers, and stuffed toys using hot water (at least 55 ̊C).
2. If the items can't be washed, seal them in a plastic bag for three weeks, or dry clean them. 3. Vacuum sofas and carpets.
Make sure to tell the school, also, so they can notify other parents.
Light at the end of the tunnel
The nit problem seems to be less common in Intermediate schools and colleges. Deep breath: This, too, shall pass.