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How to deal with nits

31 January 2012

It's a word guaranteed to make every parent’s heart sink: “nits”.

Those dastardly head lice that spread like wildfire, leading to hours spent carefully combing out every last one.

And the worst of it is, by the time you spot them it may already be too late: while it’s true that they mostly affect young children, they can set up home in anyone’s scalp - so nits on your nipper could lead to infested heads for the whole family.

Cases of the bugs are, in fact, on the rise. Where only 1.5 per cent of four to 11-year-olds caught them in 1977, today more than a third – 37 per cent – can expect to get lice. But 20 per cent of cases are also among the over 16s and under fours.

So what’s the best way to tackle the tiny tikes?

Well, given that it's National Bug Busting Day, we bring you the most up-to-date information and advice on how to blitz the blighters once and for all.

 [See also: Cost of raising a child soars to £218,000]

First of all what, exactly, are they? The truth is, head lice and nits are not the same thing. Lice are tiny grey/brown, wingless insects about the size of a sesame seed. They cling to hairs and stay close to the scalp, which they feed off.

They also lay eggs, which hatch after a week to ten days. Ten days later those bugs will have laid eggs of their own. And nits are the empty white egg shells that remain when the lice have hatched.


Contrary to common belief, lice are not a sign of dirty hair or poor hygiene – squeaky clean heads can get them, too. Close hair-to-hair contact is all that’s needed to pass them on, since they don’t fly but jump or walk from one place to another. So a cuddle, sharing a brush or hairband, lying on the carpet or even on a soft toy can do the trick.

On the plus side, when away from the hair they don’t live for long – so can’t infest bed linen or furniture.

However the scoundrels don’t always cause itching: many people with head lice have no symptoms at all. In fact, itching is caused by an individual’s allergy to the lice, not by their burrowing or biting. It can take as many as three months for an itch to develop after infestation.

And just to complicate matters, they can’t even be detected that easily by eye, and neither can they be washed off by regular shampooing.

To weed them out and banish them, experts advise regular wet “detection combing” for schoolchildren, even as frequently as once a week.

It can be time-consuming – depending on the hair, an average 15 minutes each time – but it has also been found to be four times more effective than chemical alternatives.

There are several lotions and sprays available on prescription but doctors believe these chemical ‘cures’ are no longer as effective as they once were.

GP Dr Rob Hicks says: 'This may be because the lice are developing resistance or because we're using the treatments incorrectly. Many people use insecticides as a preventive, which doesn't work and just fuels resistance.”

Instead, the NHS advises the use of a Bug Buster Kit, available on prescription or for £8.30 plus P&P by mail order from Community Hygiene Concern.

The steps are to:

  • Wash the hair as normal, rinse and apply lots of conditioner. Adding a little tea tree or neem oil to the conditioner - once you have checked the skin for sensitivity – can also help.
  • Untangle the hair using a normal comb then switch to a fine-toothed Bug Buster detection comb (metal “nit combs” are too fine-toothed to be effective) sliding it from the scalp right through to the tip of the hair and ensuring you comb around the entire head.
  • After each draw of the comb, check the teeth for lice or nits – with a magnifying class if that helps. If you see any, clean the comb by wiping it on a tissue or rinsing it in water.
  • Then rinse away the conditioner and repeat the whole process to check for any you might have missed.
  • If you find live lice, repeat the process at least four times, four days apart. If all you find is nits, or empty eggs, then it is likely the live bugs have gone.

Adds Dr Hicks: “You can't really take precautions against head lice, but you can treat them to prevent them spreading. Remember there's no shame in getting them; it's a normal part of growing up.”

Community Hygiene Concern

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