An itchy scalp is often the first sign that head lice have come to visit.
Nothing to do with hygiene
You may be surprised to discover that it's actually the faeces or saliva of the larvae and adult lice that can cause itching, as the host develops an allergic reaction. Scratching can also irritate the skin, causing more itching.
Lice and their nits (eggs) are small and, at least initially, aren’t very noticeable. The first sign of head lice is usually itching, but a person may have lice for months before actual itching begins, and not everyone experiences itching. Itching can also be caused by other things like dry skin or dandruff.
Read: Lice alert
If lice are the culprit, itching is usually worst behind the ears and at the back of the neck. Swollen lymph nodes in the neck can be an indication of a more serious allergic reaction. Other tell-tale signs are scalp redness; red bumps on the neck, scalp and shoulders; and black louse poop that looks like tiny black specks of "dandruff".
Contrary to what you might have heard, having lice is not an indication of your levels of hygiene – in fact, according to the British Association of Dermatologists lice can affect anyone, with long or short hair, no matter how clean the hair is.
Lice can't jump
Lice cannot jump from one person to another and require physical contact either between humans, or contact with objects like toys or furniture where lice have been deposited. Adult lice can only live for about 48 hours without feeding, though, so the risk of infestation from inanimate objects is smaller.
Because of close physical proximity and shared activities, schools are hotbeds of lice infestation. Since the banning of the pesticide DDT in 1973 there has been a steady increase in the number of cases in the USA.(In 1943 the United States Army provided its soldiers around the world with DDT dust to kill pubic lice, head lice and body lice, primarily to reduce the risk of contracting typhus.)
Read: Contracting typhus from lice
Some general infections associated with excessive scratching and/or infected wounds or bites, according to Lice Ladies are:
- Yeast infections: caused by scratching
- Cellulitis: a subcutaneous skin infection caused by bacteria that enter the body through broken skin
- MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus): a skin infection caused by Staphylococcus bacteria that have become resistant to certain antibiotics
- Staph infections: caused by staphylococcus bacteria that invade the body through the lesions, including infections include boils and impetigo (a contagious rash)
Getting rid of lice
There are literally thousands of home remedies to get rid of lice, but basically the process boils down to three essential steps:
1. Kill the critters! Your best bet is probably a medicated shampoo from your nearest pharmacy, but there are many home remedies that reportedly work well. Do take note that lice have built up immunity against certain chemicals.
2. Get rid of the nits (louse eggs) that are attached to individual hairs. For this you need to carefully comb the hair strand by strand with a fine comb. Every single nit needs to be removed.
3. Prevent re-infestation by washing towels, clothes, bedclothes and even fluffy toys in very hot water. Also check for lice and nits on a regular basis in case of re-emergence or re-infestation.
What are head lice?
Causes of head lice
Head lice myth busters!
Dr Greene: Lice: A-to-A Guide from Diagnosis to Treatment to Prevention. http://www.drgreene.com/articles/lice/
JunkScience.com: 100 things you should know about DDT. http://www.tysknews.com/Depts/Environment/ddt_100.htm
Kidspot:10 myths and misconceptions about head lice. http://www.kidspot.com.au/10-myths-and-misconceptions-about-head-lice/