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Head Lice

Head lice or head louse is a parasitical wingless insect that have been around for longer than you may think. DNA analysis of Peruvian mummies dating back 10,000 years shows that head lice and nits were present in ancient Egyptian times. Dead lice eggs have been extracted from the mummies of even Egyptian Pharaohs. Head lice are prevalent on all continents of the world and are only found on humans (as opposed to other mammals or animals).

From one to three mm long in size, the head louse has a distinctive head with a pair of antenna and mouth that are well adapted for piercing skin and drawing blood. However, these are retracted into the insect’s head when not in action. Head lice can start out grayish in color but soon change to a reddish hue as the insect goes on sucking blood from its human host. A head louse has a pair of eyes and six short claw-like legs and a thumb with which the insect grasps the hair of its victim host. Apart from sucking blood from its human host, head louse do not create any other complications for the host except causing slight irritation and discomfort.

To ensure uninterrupted feeding, the lice bites through the soft scalp skin of the host (which is generally painless) and injects its saliva into it that prevents blood from clotting. Though any part of the scalp may be infested with the lice, the most affected areas are the nape of the neck and the area behind the ears where the eggs are usually laid. Head lice, like fleas, stay on the host for their entire life cycle. Head lice are related to the crab louse and to body lice.


As mentioned, head lice has been around for millennia and therefore the ‘causes’ are simply the transmission of the lice from one host to another. Head lice can spread through direct contact two heads (the most common form of spreading) or through the sharing of combs, brushes, clothes, beds or any other object where there is shared contact the head area. Children, in particular, suffer from lice because of their close interaction with each other. This is particularly prevalent in schools where children play with one another every day. Head lice outbreaks in schools are very common and spread quickly amongst the children, particularly girls whose hair is on the average longer than boys.


People with head lice often have an itchy scalp. This is due to the head lice feeding on the blood under the skin. Although the initial ‘bite’ is usually unnoticed, the after effects of the bite (and multiple bites) can cause redness and itchiness. It was once believed that the itchiness was caused by the host’s unsavory hygiene (which was originally thought to be the cause of head lice) but we now know that lice can be caught by anyone with any level of hygiene. Head lice do not discriminate their hosts except in the fact that they tend to infest people with longer hair.


Diagnosing head lice is relatively easy. If your child has an itchy scalp or other children in their school have head lice, a simple ‘head check’ can be performed. Using a comb, gently fold back layers of hair around the nape of the neck and behind the ears. Search for actual lice on the scalp (tiny grayish or reddish parasites approx 1-3 mm long) or for grayish ‘eggs’ stuck to the hair (also about the same size). At first they can be difficult to spot, but once your eyes adjust they are plainly visible. If you are in doubt, take your child to the doctor. If it is confirmed that your child has head lice, deal with the problem immediately (see treatment section) and do not let them attend school until the lice is eradicated.


Head lice can travel from one person to another quite easily and this is why head lice treatment is essential. A lot of social stigma also comes with head lice, and people usually refrain from mixing with those who are infected. This is another reason why head lice treatment becomes essential, especially for children.

Though people in economically compromising countries use lighter forms of insecticides to get rid of head lice, its toxic effects can be harmful to children and hence the practice should be abandoned. Prevention and cure of head lice can be a solo operation if practiced with a bit of patience and perseverance. Examination of the child’s head with the help of a louse comb at regular intervals will allow easy diagnosis.

Head lice can be ‘picked’ off the hair with tweezers and discarded or killed in an alcohol solution. Although this sometimes works, it is very rare that you will get all of the lice and therefore reproduction and imminent infestation is likely to recur.

The best way to eradicate head lice is to use a shampoo treatment cycle. There are many head lice shampoos and hair serums available, which you can get via a prescription. Some of these shampoos contain harsh chemicals that can adversely affect you or your child when used excessively. With natural treatments becoming more and more common, there are now alternatives to harsh chemicals.

As mentioned before, you can pick out the lice one by one. If eggs have not been laid, this is a good way of ridding the head lice without using harsh shampoos. Many other natural substances such as tea tree oil and other natural oils have been proven to be effective in some products. Some people actually cover the entire scalp with Vaseline, oil or mayonnaise and leave it overnight (with a bath cap). The next morning the substance is washed off – this is thought to ‘smother’ the lice. Some physicians believe that the removal of the oil or mayonnaise simply removes the lice as well (because of the thorough cleaning needed) and thus it is the removing and not the smothering that makes this method valid.


There is not much one can do to prevent their child from getting head lice. Some rules of thumb are to have your child always bring their own pillows, blankets and pajamas for sleepovers. If there is a head lice outbreak at their school, educate your child on how head lice spreads and make sure they take the proper precautions. For adults, try and avoid sharing combs or brushes. Minimal ‘scalp’ contact with your child is difficult, however weekly head checks are a good idea to ensure you notice the head lice before it spreads through your household. Always deal with head lice immediately.

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