I clearly remember feeling slightly smug whenever notes were sent home from kindergarten, informing us of yet another outbreak of head lice. I was convinced that my kids would never be the ones scratching. Surely all that hair washing I was doing at home was paying off?
Eight years on, of course, I have found myself spending many a night combing through my children's hair, waging what has become a personal battle against "the Nit". With two daughters reluctant to allow us to shorten their long tresses, I must have tried every method known. I have used every prescribable lotion and bought everything else on offer over the counter. I have borrowed electric combs from friends, and worked my way through dozens of bottles of conditioner. I drew the line at spraying them with fly killer, as suggested by my hairdresser. But all to no avail. Still my girls would come home itching, carrying a letter not dissimilar to the ones I used to get from kindergarten.
As a result of all this, I consider myself to have some expertise on nits. Known as head lice, or kutu bugs, they have infected humans for thousands of years, and, contrary to popular opinion, they are not usually related to poor hygiene. The lice are tiny wingless insects, about two to three millimetres in length. They live on the scalp and hair, and cannot jump or fly, but use their strong claws to move from hair to hair. Close contact makes transmission easy, which explains the often rapid spread between younger children, especially if they are sharing hats or hairbrushes.
When waging war against them, it is important to understand their life cycle. The female lice lay seven-10 eggs every day, and these are deposited close to the scalp. The eggs hatch after about eight days, at which stage the empty egg case becomes white and more visible to the naked eye.
Sometimes, you may find your child has nits on close inspection but doesn't appear to have any symptoms. Other cases, however, can cause incessant itching.
To check your child's head, I suggest you apply conditioner and use a "nit comb" from the chemist to work through the hair, checking for eggs or lice as you go.
Treatment options include physically removing the lice and eggs, chemical removal using insecticides, or the more recent development of using a "suffocant" lotion to kill the lice.
Buy a good-quality metal nit comb from the chemist. Comb through wet hair and use conditioner if there are lots of tangles. To interrupt the life cycle, I suggest repeating the process on the following two nights, and then every seven days thereafter until you are certain you have won the battle. In really resistant cases, a very short haircut will be highly effective.
Options available in New Zealand include pyrethrin, permethrin and malathion. They are available under many different names, and can be obtained on prescription. They come as lotions, creams or shampoos - the last tending to be the least effective. They are applied directly to the scalp, but some absorption into the body can occur (with possibly unknown adverse effects). Ensure you read the instructions thoroughly, and be cautious if you need to use repeated treatments, especially on smaller children. Lice can quite quickly become resistant to one type of insecticide, so it can be worth trying a different type. Remember to wash all bed linen, clothes, towels and hairbrushes to avoid reinfection.
Over the past few years, research has shown "suffocant" lotions to be as effective in many cases as insecticides, and safer for long- term use. They can include a variety of ingredients, including eucalyptus oil and lemon tea tree, petroleum jelly, benzyl alcohol and dimeticone. To me, they seem to be a preferable option, especially if combined with regular combing.