Did you know? Lice prefer clean heads. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Are your kids suffering from head lice? We asked Maria Simoes, Managing Partner at UAE-based Lice Out Hair Care Solutions, and Paola Surdo, co-founder of UAE-based No More Lice and author of a child's book by the same name, about the pests and how to get rid of them.

First things first… What do lice and nits (eggs) look like?

Simoes explains: “Adult lice can be difficult to see since they are tiny insects with the size of a sesame seed. Lice can be brown to grey and have six legs with little claws, which help them hold onto hair. It is even tougher to spot if they're in their nymph stage. Those are newly hatched, like baby lice. With a white-ish colour and a pinhead size, they take around 10 days to grow into the adult stage.

“Nits look like tiny yellow or brown dots before they hatch. A louse lays up to 10 eggs on hair daily, close to the scalp. After laying eggs, they take one to two weeks to hatch. After that, the shells will be white and attached to the hair, so it's commonly considered dead eggs. But although the white eggs are easy to spot, people mistakenly think there's nothing to worry about. The problem is always the darker eggs, which are tough to find and are only waiting to turn into lice. So, if there are nits, even white ones, it means hidden lice are laying more eggs.”

How do you know if your child's got them?

Simoes says ask yourself these three questions:

Can you see them? The nit’s presence, especially visible on dark hair, is for one a clear sign that you have lice.

Is your child itching his or her head? Another sign is that lice feed on the blood they suck from our heads, so it is normal to feel itching every time they do it. This itchiness, which can go from slight to severe as the lice infestation grows, is the main sign that you have lice.

Can you spot head sores? It's also expected that those who have lice also suffer small sores on the scalp caused by scratching due to the itching they produce. So that is another sign that shows the presence of these insects on the head.

How do lice spread?

She explains that there are two quick ways for lice to infiltrate scalps:

  • Head-to-head contact - lice cannot jump or fly as we have been led to believe. But they do crawl extremely fast between heads.
  • Sharing items such as combs, hats, hair ribbons, headbands, hijabs, and all these types of accessories can lead to the spread of lice. Even scarves can be infected since lice often nest behind the ears and in the lower part of the scalp.

Surdo adds: "It’s a myth that the only place you can get lice is in school – my kids got it because of selfies. The kids all stood close to each other for a photo and one of them was infected – that was all it took for the whole group to get lice."

Did you know?
Hygiene has nothing to do with getting head lice; in fact, these parasites prefer clean heads!
Image Credit: Shutterstock

What can you do at home to get rid of them?

“Parents often try to get rid of lice with home remedies, such as vinegar, mouthwash, saltwater, lemon, or supermarket/pharmacy shampoos,” says Simoes, “But be aware that the scalp's skin is much more sensitive than the rest of the human body. If you apply a strong or chemical substance, it can burn the scalp and damage the hair. Second, you might kill the lice, and the nits will remain stuck on the hair, so in a matter of weeks, you will end up with lice again once they hatch. Then you repeat the entire process and keep harming your head and hair with no success repeatedly. It may be a better idea to consult a lice-removal specialist.”

Meanwhile, US-based WebMD offers the following do-it-yourself measures:

Wet combing. Simply wet the hair and use a fine-tooth comb to remove active lice and their eggs. You’ll need to do this every week for at least 3 weeks.

Essential oils. Plant oils such as tea tree and anise may suffocate and kill lice, but it’s not clear how well this works. You can also have an allergic reaction to these and other essential oils.

Smothering agents. Some people try to suffocate and kill lice by putting large amounts of a greasy substance on your scalp, covering with a shower cap, and leaving it on while you sleep. You can try petroleum jelly, mayonnaise, or olive oil. But these may not work well.

A brief history of remedies
The first recorded treatment of head lice comes from an Egyptian medical guide called the Ebers Papyrus, dated around BC1550. It recommends filling one’s mouth with warm date meal and water and then spitting it on the skin “in order to drive away the fleas and lice which disport themselves…” Science? Probably not. In China, documents from BC1200 indicate they used mercury and arsenic compounds to drive away head lice. It didn’t work. By BC 450., Egyptians recommended shaving the entire body to eradicate lice, which, while effective, has proved impractical in the succeeding centuries.
In 100AD, the Chinese discovered that Pyrethrum powder, extracted from a species of chrysanthemum, was an effective insecticide. History reveals remedies used to treat head lice like honey, horsemint, capsicum, pepper, seawater, silver and borax to kill head lice.
Source: Lice Clinics of America and Lice Clinics USA

Lice are contagious, so anyone in contact with someone with lice is at considerable risk of getting it. This is especially true for mums.

- Maria Simoes

Do you need to sanitise the entire house?

“Since lice can only survive off the head for up to 48 hours, washing bedsheets and vacuuming play areas are some procedures that are usually enough to get rid of them at home,” says Simoes.

Kids’ toys and bedsheets, etc. must be sanitised in case of an infection. Either great heat or cold will kill the lice and nits – we suggest freezing the toy so that it doesn’t fray or get damaged.

- Paola Surdo

Surdo adds: "Kids’ toys and bedsheets, etc. must be sanitised in case of an infection. Either great heat or cold will kill the lice and nits – we suggest freezing the toy so that it doesn’t fray or get damaged. The way to do this is to put it in plastic bag and into a freezer for some time."

What is the most handy thing to have at home to combat it?

There isn't something that you can use to combat it, says Simoes. But you can adopt some prevention behaviors to keep away from getting lice. For example,

  1. Avoid head-to-head - this is how lice move from one head to another;
  2. Don’t share personal items such as brushes, caps, headbands, and other objects used on the head;
  3. Girls should wear their hair tied up or in braids;
  4. Finally, once a week, comb the hair thoroughly, checking if there are any lice or eggs. By doing this, you stop it from spreading to the rest of the family members and colleagues at school or friends at playdates.
A case study
“The worst situation we ever saw,” recalls Maria Simoes, Managing Partner at UAE-based Lice Out Hair Care Solutions, “... was a 12-year-old girl brought by her oldest sister. She had stopped going to school because she was ashamed and bullied. She could not sleep at night. She had lice for so long that she had many wounds on her scalp due to all the scratching. She was pale and at risk of becoming anemic due to lice feeding her blood constantly. Her and her sister's relief and how they were so happy and thankful to us after our treatment was unbelievable.”

If my kid has lice, should I be treated for infestation too?

“Lice are contagious, so anyone in contact with someone with lice is at considerable risk of getting it. This is especially true for mums, since they are very close to their kids while playing around, sleeping together, hugging or watching TV on the sofa. And it's even harder to try to remove it all effectually on themselves,” she adds.

Did you know?
Did you know that lice and nits had ancient Egyptians scratching their heads? Dried head lice have been found on the hair shafts and scalps of mummies, says US-based And in fact, even Cleopatra had golden lice combs buried in her tomb with her. In Brazil, adds The Lice Clinic of America on its website, the oldest known head lice were found at an archaeological dig – the specimen was at least 10,000 years old. All of which means, if you’ve got an infestation – of a fear of an incursion - you are not alone. These parasitic six-legged tiny creatures hang on to individual follicles of hair, digging into the scalp and drinking blood. They travel from head to head, laying eggs that are sometimes white and at other times brown or black.

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