Facts Checked By Freewill Beauty Experts - Written by Gopika Suresh (Journalist) on 21st Nov 2020

Head Lice: Causes Symptoms and Remedies

Causes Symptoms and Remedies of lice

If there is one thing we all fear, that is head lice. They are tiny but ruthless and can ruin your whole day with scratching and irritation! Moreover, they are a sign of poor hygiene, as well. Read to know more about head lice, what causes them, and available treatments and remedies to avoid and get rid of them.  

What are head lice? 

Head lice are wingless, small insects that suck blood. They live on the hair on your head and feed themselves from the blood on your scalp. A louse or an adult head lice is around the size of a sesame seed, and a nit or a louse egg is the size of a small flake of dandruff. 

What causes head lice? 

Since head lice are contagious, you are most likely to get it or have gotten it from someone infected. You get infected by them when head lice crawl into your scalp.  

Some ways you may get infected from someone who already has head lice are:  

  • By touching your head with another head or scalp that is infected with head lice 
  • Sharing personal items like a comb with someone having head lice may give you them too  
  • By using fabric items like towels from someone who has head lice  

Although head lice may travel between inanimate objects, the chances of this happening are found to be very unlikely. Examples of these inanimate objects are combs, brushes, headbands, headphones, hats, and barrettes.

Where can head lice be found?  

Head lice can be found in bedding, towels, clothing, and upholstered furniture too. However, the biggest concern is children when they play and have close head contact. This is a matter of stress as head lice may be transferred from one child to another.

According to several sources, transmission through objects is a rare exception. There are differing arguments regarding the transmission of head lice through inanimate objects. But, science till now hasn’t supported any claims on transmission through these routes.  

Who is at risk for head lice?

As mentioned above, those from pre-school and elementary school are at the highest risk for acquiring head lice as they almost always play together and have head to head contact.

Once these kids have acquired headlice, there is a high risk associated with those around them, like immediate family. The same goes for those who work at daycare centres, preschools and elementary schools. 

What are the symptoms of head lice? 

The symptoms of head lice are quite apparent when infestation happens. A few of them are:  

  • experiencing an extreme sense of itchiness
  • Having a feeling of something crawling on your scalp and hair  
  • Seeing scabs and sores on your scalp from scratching excessively

How are head lice diagnosed? 

The health care provider that you approach to diagnose your head lice will do so by looking into the below things:  

  • he or she will check for head lice close to the hair and scalp  
  • He or she will look for nits close to your scalp and hair  
  • Your health care provider will run a fine-toothed comb through your scalp to catch hold of any nits and lice if present  

How to differentiate between head lice and nits?  

Nits are dark in color, while lice that have hatched already will be light-colored. Adult lice tend to move swiftly through your hair and scalp. If you feel like you have head lice on your scalp and hair, you will most likely find nits first as they are stagnant.  

How to differentiate between head lice and dandruff?

One can easily differentiate between dandruff flakes and nits or any other debris on the scalp and hair. Most often, any debris can be removed easily by cleansing hair with shampoo. On the other hand, nits almost feel like they are cemented to the hair.

Some essential information you must know of to differentiate between dandruff and nits are:  

  • Location: Although nits and dandruff look similar, dandruff tends to fall off while nits don't. They stick to the hair. Moreover, dandruff can be seen on the scalp. Nits, on the other hand, are found only on the hair where lice lay their eggs.  
  • Contagion: Lice can quickly spread from person to person while dandruff can not. If you know a friend or a family member who has lice, chances are you may develop it too. However, that is not the case with dandruff.  
  • Itching: Both dandruff and lice cause itching. Dandruff especially causes itchiness when the scalp is drier. However, lice can not just cause itchiness but also a sensation of something crawling on your hair and scalp.  
  • Lymph nodes: Lice may cause bacterial infections. This can happen after a person scratches their too hard from the itching and causes bleeding, which causes infection. In some cases, people suffering from lice may suffer from swollen lymph nodes on their necks and behind their ears.  
  • Colour: Lice are so tiny that sometimes people may need a magnifying glass to spot them. If you notice bugs or brown or black spots on your scalp and hair, it probably means that you suffer from head lice and not dandruff.  

How are head lice treated? 

Several treatments are available to treat head lice. Most of them need to be used twice to be efficient. The second treatment given after nine days or a week will kill any of the newly hatched nits. Below we have mentioned some of the most common treatments that are offered for head lice.  

Medications for treating head lice  

There are two kinds of medical treatments to treat head lice. They can be either over-the-counter (OTC)or prescription treatments for head lice.  

Over the counter treatments for head lice

The two kinds of chemicals that are made use in OTC head lice treatment are pyrethrin and permethrin.  

  • Pyrethrin: A pesticide, pyrethrin, is obtained by chrysanthemum flowers. This treatment can be used if the patient is above the age of two. However, you must not use it if you are allergic to ragweed or chrysanthemums.  
  • Permethrin: Permethrin, also known as nix, is similar to pyrethrin and is also a synthetic chemical and insecticide. Patients suffering from head lice and are two months or older may take it. 

Prescription treatments for head lice  

Under prescription, head lice treatments come with other chemicals. 

  • Benzyl alcohol lotion: Benzyl alcohol lotion, also known as Ulesfia, is an aromatic alcohol. Healthcare providers treat head lice with this lotion if the patient is six months or above. 
  • Malathion: Malathion, also known as Ovide, is a pesticide that is an organophosphate. It is used to treat head lice in those who are six years and older. However, it isn’t recommended for women who are breastfeeding and pregnant. One must use malathion with caution as it is flammable. When you use the product, stay away from open flames and sources of heat like hair dryers.  
  • Lindane: An organochlorine pesticide, lindane, is available in both shampoo and lotion forms. However, it is used in severe infestation cases and is the last resort, causing significant side effects. These include seizures and sometimes even death. Moreover, it must never be used by premature babies and those who have had episodes in the past.  

To reduce the side effects of taking these medications, one may take the following precautions: 

  • Stay away from more than one medication at a time. 
  • Don't use the medication any more than your healthcare provider has instructed. 

Alternative treatment 

Some of you may want to stay away from the pesticides mentioned above. Hence, you could use a fine-toothed lice comb or even a flea comb found in a pet store. Apply oil to your hair before combing it out as this will make the lice and nits stick to it.  

Treating your hair at home 

Lice can’t survive more than a few days in your hair. However, it would be best if you focused on killing the lice at your home along with your hair and scalp. Here are some ways you can do that.  

  • Wash your clothes and bedding on high heat and dry them on high heat. This will help kill lice and nits.
  • You can consider dry cleaning your clothes and bedding.  
  • Occasionally, soak your hairbrushes, combs, and barrettes in hot water.
  • Remember to vacuum the floors of your home regularly.  

Long-term outlook 

Anyone can get rid of lice and even treat it with the proper treatment and precautions. However, there is always a chance of getting reinfected. So, make sure to clean your surroundings regularly and avoid head to head contact with those infected with head lice.

It will help if one does not share personal items like combs as well.