Many children are diagnosed as having head lice and/or nits when in fact they either have many dead nits in their hair, or are suffering from a condition known as pseudo-pediculosis – protein globules on the hairshafts, resembling nits but caused by over-treatment of the original infestation.

Because of this, many children are sent home from school because they are thought to be suffering from head lice, thus distressing the child and its parents and losing hours, and sometimes days or weeks from school.

Education should be considered as much more important than pediculosis, which is easily treated and is of nuisance value only. There are no side-effects, apart from scratching, and it is not dangerous.

Dr Livingstone, director general of health and medical services of the Queensland Department of Health, has written that the head louse (pediculus humanus capitis) lives only on the scalp, where there is food and a suitable temperature, and that its eggs or nits are laid close to the scalp and hatch in 7 to 10 days.

The young louse takes two weeks to become mature and lay eggs, and it is considered that any nit found more than 1.3 cm (½ inch) from the scalp is either dead or hatched. Such nits are not a sign of active infestation.

Head lice are transmitted by the movement of the louse from one head to another. This happens under conditions of close contact, either at home or at school. Lice may sometimes be transmitted by the sharing of hats, combs and brushes.

It is thought unlikely that lice can be transmitted by furniture, carpets, or bedding. It is also thought unlikely that lice can be transmitted by live nits attached to hair shafts falling on to another head, as nits need to be near the scalp for the temperature to be right for them to hatch.

Lice do not jump from one head to another, nor does the human head louse breed on animals, furniture, carpets, bedding, or similar materials. Lice are not respecters of social class, people with head lice are not “dirty”, and children are not the only ones who become infested, according to Dr Livingstone.

Pediculosis, also known as pediculosis capitis and head lice infestation, does not disappear during school holidays but it is seldom heard of during vacations. Hair does not have to be cut short to help eradication. All the action is at the scalp – the egg laying, the hatching, the feeding, the killing.

The reservoir of a head lice problem is very often not a school but an adult whose home is infested, but who is unaware of this. There is no special season for head lice infestation. Weekly washing with an ordinary shampoo does not prevent or cure the condition.

Various preparations for treatment are available from chemists. To ensure that both the adult lice and the nits are killed, it is recommended that the preparations be applied weekly for two to three weeks when there is an epidemic.

While the hair is still wet after using a treatment shampoo or lotion, a fine tooth metal comb should be used to remove the nits. This can be repeated next morning. The head should be held over a piece of newspaper and the hair combed from the scalp down. This is a very time-consuming procedure. All family members must be treated at the same time.

If the scalp has been properly treated on one occasion, a child should be able to go to school next day because all adult lice and most of the nits should be dead. Therefore, the child should not have any infestation to pass on. Any remaining nits will not lay eggs for two weeks after they have hatched.

If this procedure is followed, these live nits will be killed before they hatch. If a child with head lice infestation is detected at school, he should be excluded from classes. Once treated, the child may return to school.

If all dead nits are removed, the problem of deciding whether the nits are dead or alive is alleviated, and the common misconception that a child with dead nits is still contagious can be eliminated.

Prevention of head lice infestation is not difficult. A weekly inspection by parents of their children’s heads will soon detect the presence of nits near the scalp. Lice are difficult to see, not only because of their size, but also because of their color.

Nits are easily detected. The nape of the neck, under fringes and behind the ears are areas that should be closely inspected. Once nits are detected, the treatment outlined above will prevent the infestation spreading.

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