The Telegraph Children’s Notebook
by Daisy Bridgewater
Last week a close friend was asked to leave the hairdresser, her head still dripping wet, as a nasty case of head lice had been discovered by the sharp teeth of the colourist’s comb. Another told me, when I commented on the wildness of her husband’s hairstyle, that he did not dare to get it cut as he was ravaged with lice, one of which had made it on to the projector during a PowerPoint presentation to potential clients. The nape of my neck is on fire as I write: the Easter holidays are coming, and during that brief respite from intense head-to-head classroom contact it is time that we all got on top of our nits.
If head lice were anywhere else but crawling about on the scalps of a third of all four- to 11-year-olds – and many of their parents – they would be applauded as a master race. The pediculus humanus capitis, a wingless parasite that spends its lifespan feeding on blood from the human scalp, is proving wholly resistant to a £33.5 million industry devoted to its eradication. It crawls between the heads of cosy, telly-watching siblings; it nips from parting to parting of group-working primary schoolchildren, travelling at up to 23cm per minute on its six claw-like legs. It cannot, as playground myth would have it, jump, fly or swim. Nor can it survive on car seats or pillows. But as anyone dealing with an infestation will tell you, it is notoriously difficult to control.
While chemists’ shelves groan with head lice treatments, none has been shown to be 100 per cent effective. Some (like Derbac M and Lyclear) use neurotoxins to immobilise and kill the lice, though studies show an 80 per cent rise in lice-resistance to these products since the 1970s. Newer products (including Hedrin) use a silicone-based ingredient called Dimeticone, which coats and suffocates the lice. All are expensive and largely ineffective: the only proven way to shut down an infestation is by systematic wet-combing, however much your child protests.
To do this efficiently, wet hair should be smothered in conditioner and section-combed with a fine, long-toothed comb – try either a LiceMeister ( £15.50, thehairforce.co.uk) or a Nitty Gritty Comb (£11.49, nittygritty.co.uk). Long hair should be bunched into six sections, each tackled individually by running the comb from root to tip, checking the comb after each stroke. This is a painstakingly slow process, and one that should be carried out daily for three days, the process repeated the following week if you have an infestation.
‘People need to be aware of the louse’s life cycle and timings in order to beat it,’ says Dee Wright, the founder of the Hair Force (thehairforce.co.uk), a head lice elimination service in London’s Primrose Hill, and the author of Comb to Kill, an upbeat instruction leaflet that accompanies the lice combs she sells. ‘An adult louse needs to mate only once, after which she can lay between three and 10 eggs per day for up to 30 days,’ Wright explains. ‘The eggs, laid close to the scalp and often invisible to the human eye, take seven to 11 days to hatch. Baby lice take 12 days to develop their sex organs and begin to reproduce again.’ Bearing in mind that 53 per cent of children do not start to scratch immediately, if you do not check them at least once a week you could be infested before you know it.
Wright offers a lice-clearing service either at home or in her salon, which uses specially developed machines for vacuuming the hair and dehydrating the lice, followed by the manual removal of any remaining lice and eggs. Though 100 per cent effective (until the next time a nit makes camp), it does not come cheap: it costs £100 for the first visit, then £50 for every follow-up visit, with most clients needing two or three. But for those of us stuck with an army of head lice marching back on to our children every time they set foot in the classroom, she has some sterling words of advice: ‘As long as you know your enemy you can control it. Check your child’s hair every week whether they are itching or not, and the moment you find an adult louse start wet-combing before a new infestation takes hold.’ By my reckoning, if I start now, we might all be nit-free by the beginning of term.