EXPERT ADVICE: Head Lice

Head lice are contagious and may cause itch but don’t worry, these annoying parasites don’t usually cause long-term harm.

Tots- EXPERT ADVICE Head Lice-main
You wash your little one’s hair every day, and always ensure that he is neat and clean. But one day, you notice that he is scratching at his scalp incessantly. On checking his scalp, you are horrified to find tiny brown dots hidden in his hair. What is that? Junior might be suffering from a head lice infection.

Head lice, also known as head louse, is a parasitic insect that can be found on people’s head, eyebrows and eyelashes. They tend to live close to the human scalp as they need to feed on human blood several times a day. Lice lay eggs called nits that stick firmly to hairs near the scalp. Head lice can affect anyone, regardless of the cleanliness level or age.

In the beginning, a head lice infestation can be hard to spot as there might not be any symptoms except for a mild itching, which can be due to other reasons such as dandruff or sweat. The itch is caused by an allergic reaction to the head lice bite. Other more obvious symptoms include soreness, a secondary infection from the scratching, and the feeling that something is moving in their hair or a tickling sensation on their scalp.

Although head lice have no particular preference for kids, your little monkeys are more prone to getting infected as they are more likely to come into physical contact with one another, and share personal items.

Dr Eileen Tan, a dermatologist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, has details on head lice, plus, advice on how to get rid of this tiny wingless parasite.

How do you check for head lice, and what treatment methods will get rid of them?
Head lice love to infest hair-bearing regions such as the scalp, eyebrows and eyelashes. They are easier to spot with a magnifying lens, or when the hair is wet. Nits are frequently found on the hair behind the ears and at the back of your neck, and can be quite difficult to remove. However, if no lice are seen and only nits are found, the infestation is probably old and no longer active and thus does not need to be treated.

Medication such as Malathion lotion, Ivermectin lotion and emulsion benzyl benzoate lotion can be used to kill lice and nits. The treatment method will differ depending on your age and skin’s reaction to the lotion, but you’ll need a prescription for the medication.

Babies have sensitive skin, are there any natural methods to remove head lice in babies?
After wetting and conditioning your baby’s hair, use a fine-toothed nit comb to comb through the entire head at least twice from the scalp to the end of the hair. This might help to remove lice and some nits, and should be done every three to four days for several weeks until no more lice can be found. However, this method might not always work. If there is no improvement after two or three weeks, medical consultation will be necessary.

Can head lice cause baldness or any other long-term effects in children?
In general, if treatment is received on time, there should not be any hair loss. However, I have seen cases of scalp infection and hair loss due to a misdiagnosis or delay in seeking treatment. The patient keeps scratching at a particular area, causing it to develop into secondary eczema and infection, thus resulting in the loss of hair. Other than that, there are no long-term ill effects.

Are there any pro-active measures a parent can take to prevent head lice from spreading to their kid?
Avoid sharing items that come into contact with your scalp or hair, such as combs or towels. It is beneficial to avoid activities that can lead to head-to-head contact as well. Although head lice have no particular preference for kids, they are more prone to getting infected as they are more likely to come into physical contact with one another and share personal items. This makes it easier for the bugs to travel from one person to another. 

How do you prevent a re-infestation after your child has been cured of head lice?
There is no definite way to prevent a re-infestation of head lice. The best way is to teach your child to avoid direct head-to-head contact and not share personal items such as hats, clothing or belongings that can transfer lice and nits. You can also disinfect your combs or bedding by soaking them in hot water that is at least 55 deg C.

When should parents be worried about the head lice situation?
In my opinion, head lice is treatable and I feel that parents should not be unduly worried about the situation. As long as parents take steps quickly to treat a head lice infection, a lice outbreak can be prevented.

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Dr Eileen Tan is a dermatologist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital.

Photo: iStock

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