What Are Head Lice?

Head louse on hairHead lice (singular: head louse) are small insects that don’t have wings and live by drinking blood from your scalp. Kids in particular have problems with them, thanks to them being difficult to get rid of, small, easy to spread, and spectacularly annoying.

The good news that is lice aren’t dangerous: while they leave itchy bite marks on the scalp, they’re by no means dangerous, although scratching their bits can potentially cause infection.

The bad news is that once you know about a lice infestation, it’s important to start treatment immediately thanks to how easy it is for the lice to spread from head to head.

Signs of Head Lice

You can see nits and head lice without any special equipment.

Their eggs vary in color from yellow through to tan and brown, often like small dots right before the lice emerge from them. You can’t get rid of them by brushing hair – or shaking for that matter! – and the lice lay their eggs on individual shafts of hair, close to the scalp where the temperature is ideal for them. As much as they might look like dandruff, they’re much more difficult to get rid of!

It’s pretty unusual to see actual lice moving around, and you’re far more likely to see the eggs instead. (which is what most people refer to as “nits”). It takes anywhere from 7 to 14 days for the eggs to hatch, and once this has happened, they will look transparent – or even white – and will still stay in place. This is the time it’s easiest to spot them.

A fully grown louse will be barely few millimeters long, with a gray or tan body. Baby lice (also called nymphs) aren’t as big, although it only takes them a couple of weeks after hatching to catch up in size. The total life cycle takes around three weeks, each time adding more and more lice. During all of this, the adult and baby head lice are eating a good few times a day, and if that’s not bad enough, they can live without eating for a further two days.

If you notice someone repeatedly scratching their head, there’s a good chance it’s caused by head lice. To be precise, it’s the digestive juices released by lice when they bite into the scalp that are responsible for the maddening itches. Some people have skin that’s more or less sensitive to a louse’s bites, so just because someone isn’t scratching don’t think that they don’t have them! It’s possible for someone to be infested for several weeks and not even have begun to scratch madly.

You can sometimes see a rash, or even just small red marks (or bumps) on a child’s head. Scratching needs to be monitored, so that secondary infections don’t cause further complications.

If you already have a lice comb, it might be possible for you to already see nits and lice with a fine check, particularly around the bottom hairline near the neck. There might also be signs around the edge of the hair in general, although eyelashes and eyebrows are unlike to show signs. Your chances to seeing something definitive will be increased hugely if you use a bright light and magnifying glass.

When to go to the doctor? If scratching is taking place constantly, or a child is seriously unhappy that their scratching just won’t go away, a doctor will be able to tell you for certain.

You should also consult with your child’s health practitioners and make sure that you’re not missing vital information about treatment already in place for head lice. You should also ask about how long your child (or children) should be kept away from school for head lice; it will often vary from school to school, and sometimes even between different year groups.

Written by tom


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