Head lice are small insects that live on the human scalp. They are common and cause concern and frustration for parents, children and young people. Head lice are small, flat insects, about 2-3mm long. They live on the scalp and they lay eggs (nits) on strands of hair.
Anyone can get head lice. It doesn't matter how clean or dirty a person's hair is. Head lice spread by crawling from one person's hair to another's, usually between people who are in close contact, such as family or school classmates.
- cannot jump, fly or swim
- do not carry disease
- stay on the scalp after swimming, bathing or showering
What do head lice look like?
Head lice can be white, brown or dark grey. They are usually in the hair at the back of the neck or behind the ears.
Female head lice lay about 7-10 eggs each night. The eggs are small and hard (like a grain of salt) and are normally pale grey in colour. Eggs are laid close to the scalp, are normally pale grey in colour and are firmly glued to strands of hair. After hatching, the empty egg cases are white. Eggs hatch in 9 days and head lice live for 40 days.
Checking for head lice
In school-age children check for head lice often, at least once a week. Scratching, scratch marks or a rash can be a sign that your child has head lice. But not all children complain of itchy heads. At least once a week, check the scalp for head lice insects and eggs, especially:
- around the hairline at the back of the neck
- behind the ears
- on the crown (top of the head)
If you find head lice or eggs, you will need to treat them.
Chemical treatments or wet combing are the usual ways to treat head lice. Talk to your pharmacist, doctor or nurse for advice. Ordinary shampoo or soap will not kill head lice. Do not use fly spray, kerosene or animal treatments, as these may harm children.
Chemical treatments use a special shampoo or lotion that kills the head lice and the eggs. Follow the instructions that are supplied with the chemical treatments.
Always do a second treatment 7-10 days after the first. This is to kill any head lice that may have hatched after the first treatment.
- Wet the hair and scalp with conditioner (this makes it easier to see the head lice and loosens the eggs).
- Use a fine toothed comb to check for head lice and eggs and to comb them out. It's best to use a fine metal comb, or a special head lice comb you can get from a pharmacy or $2 shop.
- Comb the full length of the hair, from the scalp to the ends. Work your way around the head so that you have combed all of the hair.
- If you see any head lice or eggs, clean the comb by wiping it on a tissue or paper towel, or rise the comb before you use it again.
- After you have combed all the hair, rinse out the conditioner.
- Repeat the wet combing each week until you do not find any more head lice or eggs.
It is not possible to completely prevent head lice because they are very common. There are things you can do to stop head lice from spreading.
- Brush hair every day. This may help kill or injure head lice and stop them from laying eggs.
- Do not share brushes, combs, headbands, ribbons, hair clips, helmets or hats - anything that touches someone's head.
- Wear hair in a ponytail or tied up, if it is long.
- If you do get head lice in your family, everyone that has them should be treated at the same time.
- Let the school and any other close friends know that you child has been treated for head lice.
For more information please click here for the Ministry of Health guidelines.