The nitty gritty of nits and lice

Kinderling News & Features

One mention of the words ‘nits’ or ‘lice’ and watch as everyone around you starts scratching their head. Not only are they infuriatingly itchy, but they are infuriatingly contaigous.

CHOICE Australia’s Kate Browne has both personal and professional experience with nits – with her two daughters, and through research for CHOICE. She gives us the nitty gritty on treating these little bugs, and the best way to get rid of them. 

Is there a difference between nits and lice?

“Nits are actually the eggs. They're the little eggs glued on to the hair. Lice are the little critters that are running around laying the eggs,” Kate says. So once the nits are hatched, they are known as lice.

How do kids get them?

Kate says there are a few myths around how lice get into hair.

“One is that they can jump and fly. That's not true. Nits can only crawl,” she explains. “They swing basically from one head to another. They've got little hooks on the end of their legs … and that's why younger children tend to get them because they tend to put their heads together a lot more than older children.”

Are there preventative measures to take?

“There are some. They're not 100 percent ironclad,” Kate says. “What I think is really interesting when you just said those things is there are so many theories about nits and so much misinformation gets spread from parent to parent, a bit like the lice themselves. And it was really only when I looked into it and spoke to experts I realised how many of these things aren't true.”

“Preventative sprays, as an academic pointed out to me, don't work in the sense that once lice are on your head, even if they don't like it there, they can't get off because they can't jump, they can't fly away. So the idea of a preventative is kind of a bit of a moot point.”

Listen to Kate on Kinderling Conversation: 

There are a few things you can do to stop lice climbing aboard in the first place.

  • Discouraging your child from hugging kids at daycare
  • Tying hair back
  • “The jury's out on whether things like putting hairspray on your head just so it's a bit harder to get purchase or probably to have those flyaway hairs probably a really good idea.”
  • Don’t share hats or brushes 

What is the most effective treatment?

Once those little lice are up there on a head, they’re not getting off. They’re busy drinking your blood, laying eggs and have a family - w hich means you can’t just hope they go away!

A lot of parents might remember back in the day spraying their head with tea tree oil or dousing their hair in a treatment picked up from the chemist. And while those treatments may have worked once upon a time, Kate says that lice immunity is now increasing, which means those treatments are no longer as effective.

“Experts say they're becoming quite resistant to some of the treatments that we use,” Kate says.

Plus, these treatments are only going to kill the live lice but won’t remove the nit eggs. When the eggs hatch, more critters will come out and you’ll have to run the treatment again, as well as combing it out.

Instead, the most effective treatment now is as simple and cheap as a huge bottle of your normal hair conditioner. Experts have said it works because it smothers the lice.

“You put the conditioner on dry hair, it smothers the lice so they can't breathe, it bogs up their breathing apparatus and stuns them because they can move really fast. What it does is it sort of clogs them up [and] they stop moving,” she explains. 

Kate recommends buying conditioner pale in colour, and a plastic or metal nit comb.

You then put conditioner over and comb it all out. “I use paper towel, wipe that conditioner on and you can see the bugs because they're dark-coloured. You need to do it every second day for about 10 days to break that cycle because every adult louse that's running around has laid eggs. And their life cycle is about 10 days as well.” 

Do kids have to stay home?

You probably do need to keep them home for a day, depending on how long it will take to comb out the hair.

“Generally, the rule is if they're discovered by the parent or by the school, you need to keep your child home and start the treatment. However, as you point out so many kids have them, no children will be at school if they had to stay home the whole time.” Kate explains. “As they are undergoing treatment then they are okay to go back to school and in my own experience that first comb through is where you're going to get the majority of adults who are causing the problem.” 

They should be good to go as long as you've tied their hair up, make sure they're not sharing hats and have washed the pillowcases.