Head lice are usually something parents face at the start of the school year. So, how do you prevent your kids from getting them and how do you get rid of them?

Owner of head lice treatment service, The Hair Force, Andew Hennessy, told RTÉ LifeStyle: "Nits and lice are at epidemic proportions in this country.

"Traditionally, the peak times of the year have been shortly after back-to-school [September] and again after Christmas however, in our opinion, it is pretty much year long now.

"Over half of all 11-14 year olds get them each year. Younger and older siblings, parents, grandparents, teachers and carers also get them."

"It is estimated that one in 10 children suffer from head lice at any one time [HSE study 2008], with 80% of head lice infestations occurring in children between the ages of four and 16," according to the Irish Pharmacy Union President, Kathy Maher.

"The increase in the selfie-culture would certainly be a contributory factor as there is a substantially greater risk from head-to-head contact.

Mary de Buitléir, Stuirtheor from ‘Naíonra Seomra Mary’ added: "We usually see our first instances of head lice in a class room situation early on in the year. In recent years we are seeing instances throughout the year."

Just as many were claiming that the warm early winter failed to kill many cold and flu bugs, it seems it’s playing havoc with lice-cycles too: "I'm not sure whether the weather affects them but we notice that the colder the weather the less we have head lice."

Head Lice - The Facts:
According to Hennessy, if you want to get rid of nits and head lice you need to understand the life cycle which works like this:

  • Nits, the eggs, take seven to 11 days to mature and hatch.
  • The baby louse take nine to 12 days to grow into an adult. A fully grown adult louse is the size of a sesame seed.
  • Once an adult, it needs to find a mate.
  • 24 hours after pairing the female lays her first eggs – and then keeps laying them day after day, after day, after day.
  • Head lice die if they don't have contact to fresh blood supply from the scalp within two days.

This is what the little brats look like

Lice: Myth-Buster Ugly Truths

  • Contrary to popular opinion, head lice can’t jump and can only be passed through direct, or very close, head contact.
  • Small but mighty. An adult louse can really move it! They can crawl 23 cm in a minute.
  • Studies have shown they prefer sweet blood and don’t like testosterone. Seriously mother nature – are you a misogynist?!
  • Lice are genetically programmed to look for new heads or hosts all the time.
  • Head lice like clean, well groomed hair.
  • 53% of people who have them don’t itch and if your child doesn’t itch you probably don’t look. To avoid getting caught out do a weekly or fortnightly check with a nit comb so you can catch them early.
  • Nits are the eggs of head lice and can be hard to detect, this is what causes re-infection.
  • Many people find that after clearing their child it’s all back three to four weeks later and this means they must have re-caught them from someone. However what this usually means is that they weren’t fully cleared in the first place. The lice might have been removed but not all the nits and 3 to 4 weeks later those nits have hatched and matured.
  • To break this cycle you have to keep clearing both the nits as well as the lice out of the hair, day after day. If not, the nits hatch, mature, mate, they lay eggs, those eggs mature, hatch and so on.
  • Adults don’t get lice? Myth. Years ago hair colour was more harsh and would kill lice however nowadays many colours, in addition to lice treatments, are too gentle to kill them.
  • The average infestation is about 20 lice. During their 30 day life span, the female louse lays between 5 and 10 nits (eggs) each day, so the issue can easily escalate to hundreds, and even thousands.
  • The female louse is to be admired – in a messed up way. After she has mated once, she doesn’t have to mate ever again. She simply keeps spare sperm in a special container in her body and uses it as she goes, laying eggs daily for the rest of her days (30 to be precise). Classy.

The best treatment is the age-old combing through - wet or dry

Does my child have nits?
Adult lice are fairly easy to spot, especially on lighter coloured hair however if you use a correct head lice comb and brush the hair over a sink you will spot the lice being brushed out regardless of hair colour. Nits/eggs however are more difficult to spot, with many mistaking dandruff etc for nits.

In order to distinguish between the two, comb the hair over a black cloth – dandruff will appear to be mostly see-through and the eggs or nits will be more coloured or dense. Also if you can easily pull what you find off the hair with your fingers, its likely to be dandruff. If it won’t come away easily and is glued onto the hair it is more than likely a nit. They are tear drop shaped and are brownish in colour. If it is clear or white in colour then it has already hatched. Nice.

The Secret of Success for Treating Lice?

Preventative Combing, Wet Combing & Bug Busting
There are varying views on whether you should go the chemical route or opt for more natural methods of treating head lice. Here are some very interesting expert opinions and while they vary slightly, they all agree on one thing – combing (whether wet or dry) is key and persistence is obligatory (purgatory).

The Natural Method:
"Parents are often hesitant to use chemicals on their children's heads so the problem can go untreated for long period of times."

Mary’s advice? First thing is to meticulously and regularly comb through the hair. Second? "Don't be embarrassed asking for alternative treatments to the chemicals. When my daughter had an infestation (of which there were many) I used mayonnaise in her hair at night, covered in a swim cap to save it getting everywhere.

"The oil removed the eggs and the vinegar killed the adults. The added benefit was she had beautiful shiny hair after treatment and no chemicals!

"Treatment doesn't have to be chemical but will take time and most importantly repeat the treatment one month after first treatment."

Hennessy from The Hair Force’s view of the natural method? "...any oily, thick viscosity substance stands a chance of drowning or suffocating the adult lice but again [will] not have an effect on the eggs."

Chemical Brothers:
We spend millions per year on nit and lice shampoos and treatments in this country but 80% of the time lice are immune to them and this has been proven by leading government research.

Teacher de Buitléir added: "Also the real secret to using most of the new treatments properly is that the treatment has to be repeated one month after the first treatment, most parents overlook this thus resulting in the eggs not being removed the first time, leading to hatching and re-contaminating.

"While chemicals used a generation ago were more severe they did eliminate the issue but there are also some small steps that parents can take to eliminate the problem the only large cost to them is time."

"Children now are showered most days and gone are the Friday night bath times. I can remember after bath time on a Friday a small amount of conditioner was put into our hair and our hairs were fine combed for lice.

"This succeeded in doing two things: Firstly if an infestation was found it was no longer than seven days, thus resulting in very little cross contamination. Secondly where an infestation was detected, all the family was treated.

"This is time consuming for time stretched parents but it is the best practise to eliminate instances for families having multiply infestations."

Hairdresser & Owner of The Sitting Room hair salon, Caroline Heavey, shared her view: "The best way to treat head lice is with the chemical treatments purchased from a pharmacy (see below). These used correctly and in conjunction with a fine tooth comb should solve the problem.

"Many people are shying away from these chemical treatment as they find them very abrasive, but in my opinion I find that most of the natural remedies do not work.

"I feel that people moving towards these methods have contributed to the current epidemic as the lice are not being treated properly."

Hands on approach is the only way

Irish Pharmacy Union - Prevention and Cure:

  1. Check children’s hair for lice regularly, ideally twice a week. Use a wet comb made for the purpose. Combing through wet hair makes the process easier. Good light is important.
  2. Check close to the scalp, behind the ears, around the nape of the neck, top of the head and under the fringe.
  3. Treat the hair only if live lice or unhatched eggs are present. Treat the child and other family members as soon as possible. Always ask your pharmacist for advice on the most appropriate treatment to use.
  4. Inform the school, contacts and friends when your child has head lice. The school can then inform other parents that there is an outbreak, so everyone can check and treat their own children.
  5. [If going the chemical treatment route]…always follow the instructions on the treatment pack and any advice given by your pharmacist. Products used to treat head lice do not prevent the infection from occurring and should never be used ‘just in case’.

The Hair Force opinion:

  • When the products work they will kill the lice, but they won’t necessarily kill the nits, according to Hennessy. This is why you have to reapply these products two weeks later, to catch anything that has successfully hatched since the last treatment. However it is through overuse and misuse that lice have become immune to these shampoos and treatments and 80% of the time they don’t work at all.
  • The products will not get rid of the nits – there’s no getting away from the workload, these have to be combed out. Why do you think the products often include a nit comb even though they imply they have affected the nits (the eggs)?
  • Hand removal is still the best way of getting rid of nits and lice because:

-Nits and lice cannot develop immunity to it
-As a matter of course you tackle the nits as well as the lice and that way break the cycle.

  • The chemical treatments that we used as kids did the job but many have been removed from the market as they were damaging to our health. The new products are less effective. The much studied ‘mutation super lice’ would suggests that lice have developed a resistance to current formulas." Yikes.
  • Hennessy's argument: "...combing to clear and prevent is the way to go.

"The issue with this is that such a procedure could take weeks of combing to clear [or Bug Busting as its called Stateside] and as a result the parents and child give up and resort back to the promises of the OTC [Over the Counter] which don’t work, this is where we come into play with our heat treatment which targets the egg and stops it in its tracks.

"Our process is independently verified by the FDA. 99.2% effective even before we forensically comb which is why we can offer 100% guarantee, not to mention we also eliminate the stress factor which is underestimated!"

The Hair Force process works by incorporating Air Allé™ technology (essentially hoovering out lice and nits from the hair) combined with hand extraction. For more information on The Hair Force, click here.

Prevention is better than cure:
"The best way to prevent head lice is to keep the hair tied up in a plait or a bun. Some people add a little tea tree oil or shampoo, this can also help," advises owner of The Sitting Room hair salon, Caroline Heavey.

"Some children unfortunately are very prone to them. I have had a few clients over the years that I have used a ‘colourless colour’ in order to prevent contamination.

"We use Redken Shades Eq Crystal Clear gloss. This is an ammonia free colour that is slightly acidic. Headlice HATE acid. It will last in the hair for up to 30 shampoos.

"So it can work very well as a preventive measure and has the added bonus of making the hair super shiny!"

What happens if teachers spot head lice in your child’s hair?
The rules unfortunately vary greatly from school to school. In Germany, for example, children are not allowed to come to school if they have nits. In parts of the States, you have to prove you've attended a clinic and de-loused before you can return to school. As a result of such policies, awareness is huge in those countries and preventative combing is part of their weekly/daily regime.

What about closer to home? In her pre-school, de Buitléir said: "Usually we will hear from the parents about instances of head lice and a note will be sent out.

"Where we discover the source we will inform parents, however we do not require that the child be removed immediately from the service as even though we have detected it, the child will have had them for at least a few days and the other children will have already been in contact with the child.

"However we do ask parents to delouse that evening." Another thing to consider is washing/delousing contaminated hairbrushes, sheets, clothes etc but remember the fact above - that lice die once they are removed from the blood supply at the scalp for 48 hours. Small comfort but good to know nonetheless.

Good tips but bet that doc regrets standing so close to the board

What happens if the hair dresser finds lice in clients hair?
Almost every parent whose child or children have had head lice, dread those initial few moments in the hair dressers chair for themselves and/or their children – are the lice still there? Will the hairdresser spot them? If so, what will they do?

"The answer to this is simple; unfortunately for the client we cannot do hair while it has an infestation! We will suggest that they go to the pharmacy and come back when the hair is clear!" Caroline explains – which is in keeping with a legal obligation that hairdressers have to prevent spreading lice to other customers.

"Head lice are highly contagious and as a salon we cannot risk cross contamination for our other clients."

Caroline Heavey, The Sitting Room, Sandyford. T: 01-2956923. Check out The Sitting Room on Facebook.

Going forward
Head lice are the second most communicable health issue amongst children – the first is the common cold but what are we doing to tackle the issue?

  • Schools need to adopt an official policy on lice:

Hennessy believes that this is essential: "When a child is discovered to have head lice some schools ignore, some send a note out with all kids home, some tell the parents of the child and some schools have more strict policies such as if the problem persists they call the parent and ask them to keep the child off until it is sorted. Each school outlines its own policy and in most cases have no policy at all other than regularly sending out notes.

"One of the reasons for such an approach is that the issue of head lice is not tracked with official statistics and no parent send in a sick note with ‘out with nits’. The stigma is alive and strong and the basic issue behind the spreading is the perceived ‘shame’ of having lice despite the fact that pretty much every household will suffer at one stage or another."

  • 5 Minute School Check:
    Many countries abroad offer a head lice school-check service, which works along the lines of the eye or ear checks only more regularly! Students are checked for lice and their parents are immediately informed of the results. The Hair Force offer this service in Ireland however, unlike abroad, this is something that the school board need to arrange...at least until the Department of Education get on board.
  • Call in the Government:
    Andrew and his wife/business partner Michelle raised the head lice and school-check issue with former Minister Jan O'Sullivan: "She examined our concept and praised it but as we are a commercial project she cannot endorse us. She can only suggest that we contact each school on an individual basis as each school board has autonomy."
  • Spread the Word:
    Another issue he highlights is the "heavy dose of stigma. In Ireland we generally don’t have an understanding or promote the preventative combing for head lice. Our clients pretty much all arrive (like we did with our five children) after being hit with the problem for the first time and then following multiple goes at OTC treatment’s they come to us pulling their hair out (and their kids!).

    "Preventative combing needs to be promoted and we believe at school level to help reduce the stigma, if the reduce the stigma at the kids level it will spread to the parents."

Finally, Naíonra head and teacher de Buitléir added: "The more that parents are informed about lice, the easier life is for teachers, schools, the children and on parents themselves as this will reduce the instances of head lice infestation.

"Parents seem to be misinformed in relation to head lice. When we talk to them…they seem to think it’s a sign of some neglect in the child's care. From this we feel that parents are not talking about the subject and as a result it goes untreated within the close friends or family thus resulting in recontamination among the small group.

"Advice I would give to parents is talk to other parents, head lice only inhabit clean well groomed hair so there is no judgement on the care of your children. Let the teachers or carer know your child had an infestation.

"I’d always reassure parents that their child did catch them from another person, they are not the first to get them and won’t be the last, letting others know can break the cycle."