Every parent panics, feels lost and helpless and doesn’t know where to start or where to go with their first lice experience. Whether we like to admit it or not, lice outbreaks happen almost every single year at nurseries and schools. A few will get infested with it then spread it to a few others while others will be lucky enough to stay clear  all year round. Part of it goes back to our ignorance on how to deal with this infection. Dr. Dina Sharkawy, Lecturer of Dermatology at Cairo University, kindly answered all our questions about this special kind of creepy crawly:

What are “lice” exactly?
Lice is the plural of louse. Head lice are parasites that infest the hair. Medically this condition is called pediculosus capitis, when the lice infest the hair on the head. These parasites are about the size of a sesame seed. They have six legs with claws at the ends that they use to attach themselves to the hair. They feed on blood and use their mouth parts to bite into the skin and their saliva and excretions cause itching. Head lice lay eggs (nits), which can be found glued to the hair anywhere on the scalp, but are commonly laid on hairs at the back of the neck and around the ears. The nits are about 0.8 mm, oval and tan in color.”

Are there any precautions we can take to prevent our kids from contracting lice?
Head lice have no wings, so they crawl. Transmission occurs via direct head-to-head contact, or by sharing of personal items such as combs, brushes, blow-dryers, hair accessories, bedding, hats, caps, scarves and other headgear. Head lice infestations can happen to anyone, but they are more common in school-age children. It is important to emphasize that poor hygiene, skipped baths or showers, or any other hygiene issue is not the cause of head lice. Children who live in crowded conditions may have more of a problem with head lice, but that is only because they are living close to one another and may sleep in the same bed. The first step you can take to avoid lice is not to share personal items that come in contact with your hair. Schoolgirls with long hair are safer having their hair tied up in a bun or even a ponytail or a braid. Lastly, parents should not send their children to school if they have lice.”

Is there a way to safe-proof a house before or during an infestation?
Homes don’t get infested by lice, people do! So, there is no such thing as safe proofing the house against lice. Lice cannot live off of a human host for more than 36 hours. Vacuum to remove lice or fallen hairs with attached nits from upholstered furniture, rugs, stuffed animals or wherever someone with head lice may have rested their head. You can also put bed linens, stuffed animals and other items in a dryer for 30 minutes. Brushes and combs should be disinfected by washing in hot water and not shared by family members. Pillow covers, bedding and towels should be machine washed in high temperature. Pesticidal sprays on furniture are unwarranted and may pose personal and environmental hazards and should not be used to disinfect the house.”

Most parents buy a shampoo or medicine over the counter from any pharmacist to get rid of the head lice. Is that effective and safe for all cases? And are there any side effects to that?
There are no over the counter or prescription treatments to kill lice that are totally safe and scientifically proven to be 100% effective against head lice and nits. Various “natural” remedies are vigorously marketed on the Internet but there are no scientific basis for their claims of efficacy and human safety. There are special combs used to manually remove live lice and nits and is a necessary component of any head lice treatment regimen. Individuals have unique vulnerabilities that must be considered before any treatment. Therefore the treatment regimen is better selected by a dermatologist to suit each individual case. In general, lice treatment should be applied a second time, about 10 days after the 1st, to kill any nits that may have survived the 1st time.”

How often should we check their hair? Are there any preventive tips?
Basically, you should check for lice if your child is itching or if there has been a case of head lice reported at school. In case of a school report check your child weekly, as children who get infested for the 1st time may not show any signs of itching for up to 6 weeks, and the earlier you detect lice, the better. Girls with long hair should tie their hair up at school, and tell children not to share personal items that come in contact with hair with other kids.”

Are there any side effects if lice are disregarded or not treated properly?
If lice are not treated properly, complications may develop like secondary bacterial infection due to scratching. This may be mild or severe with fever, enlarged lymph nodes and scalp abscesses. If lice are not treated properly, they won’t go away. Eventually you, your spouse, your children, and so on, will all get infested.”

If a family member is infested with lice, what are the procedures to take for the rest of the family?
Before treating one family member, check others in the household for lice, then treat everyone who’s infected at the same time to avoid passing lice back and forth. Because infested people usually have few lice, you can easily miss finding them. It is important that you carefully and thoroughly inspect the person’s head, particularly the back of their neck and around their ears. Dandruff, oil droplets in the hair and even flakes of hair spray can be confused with nits. When in doubt, consult a dermatologist.”

How long is the life cycle of a louse?
Head lice can survive on a human host for approximately 30 days. The adult female louse lays 3-5 eggs a day. The eggs are glued to the hair shafts by a material that closely resembles the hair constituents. The eggs hatch in 7-10 days and it takes another 7-10 day for the louse to mature and lay their own eggs. An adult female louse generally cannot survive longer than 36 hours off the human host, but the nits can survive until they hatch.”

How would you advise a parent who has a child infected with lice?
You should keep your child home until they’re free of lice and viable nits. The best way to achieve this is with a topical medication for the hair and combing the hair with a special lice-comb to remove all the nits. Once the head is clear, you can send them back to school.”

You can reach Dr. Dina Sharkawy through R3aya clinic at 0102 444 0752, or at Dar el Fouad hospital.