Head lice: who cares?


Once upon a time, children caught with these vampiric insects on their head were dragged out of class and sent home in disgrace, unable to return until their parents could prove without a shadow of a doubt their offspring were no longer lousy with bugs.

Today, with the NSW Department of Health estimating that about a quarter of kids have head lice at any one time, and most parents not at home to take the call that their child is infested, constant head scratching has become a way of life for many.

So how much should parents panic about these little suckers making their homes on the scalps of little ones?

A health issue?
While government health departments have fact sheets for parents on head lice, an infestation is actually not a health problem as such.

Family GP Dr Ginni Mansberg says from a doctor’s point of view – her response as a mother is very different – there is nothing for parents to worry about. “They do not carry disease and an infestation rarely leads to infection. Any infection is caused by scratching with dirty fingers rather than by dirty lice,” she says.

While these insects are blood suckers, head lice researchers at James Cook University in Queensland have said it would take a monumental head and body infestation – probably more than a young child’s scalp could sustain – to cause associated anaemia.

Their research found the amount of blood drunk by a head louse in a single feeding session is very small – from 0.0000387ml to 0.0001579ml.

“However, a heavily infected person [with thousands of lice] with a marginal iron status may have their condition made worse by head lice,” a university fact sheet claims.

For parents worried about blood loss, the university has an online blood loss calculator.

Mansberg, a mum of six, feels differently about lice when wearing her well-fumigated mother’s hat. She, like almost every Australian parent, has battled regular outbreaks.

“While I know there is no health problem, I cannot sit back and let them set up star command on my children’s heads. And that’s one of the big issues – if a lice outbreak is not dealt with, the lice will keep on multiplying and multiplying,” she says.
Essential lice facts
Mansberg has a point: a single louse can lay up to 150 eggs within a month. Here is more information about this parasitic bug, its eggs (nits) and baby offspring (nymphs).
They can’t jump or fly People get head lice from direct hair-to-hair contact with another person. Head lice cannot fly or jump from head to head. They can only crawl.
 Don’t expect an itch Many lice do not cause itchiness, so you have to look closely to find them.
 No treatment kills all the eggs You’ll need to re-treat or comb in seven days when the newest eggs start hatching. Some advise doing the conditioner and combing treatment (see below) every second day until you have found no live lice for 10 days.+ Forget stripping beds, burning hats and boiling towels James Cook University researchers scoured the carpets in 118 primary school classrooms and checked 2000-plus children’s heads. They found no lice on the floors and 14,033 lice on the heads. You can take off the pillow cases but lice don’t live long off their hosts.
resistance is common Lice are often resistant to the insecticides in some commercial treatments so they may not work.

Condition and comb

For maintenance or dealing with resistant little suckers, James Cook University recommends the conditioner-and-comb method. Yes, it’s time consuming and puts parents at risk of repetitive strain injuries but, anecdotally at least, it seems to be the removal technique many parents end up using. Basically, it involves coating dry hair thickly with cheap conditioner, then using a lice comb on every part of the head and scraping it onto a tissue to see if there are lice or nits. The conditioner stuns lice for 20 minutes so they are immobile and unable to escape.