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What are nits?

Horrible itchy, tickly, clingy things that want to take up permanent residence on your head. Nits are in fact the eggs of head lice - little brown insects with wiggly legs, but “Arrggh, she’s/he’s got nits!” is the universal cry of most parents who have school-age children, noticed a lot of head scratching, peered into their sprogs’ hair only to see the little pin-head sized lice crawling around. You can’t really mistake a louse, but it’s easy to mistake a speck of dandruff, fluff, or congealed food for the nits - tiny, pearly sesame-seed shaped eggs clinging to individual hair shafts. Clever things, nits, and very persistent. It’s making us scratch our heads just thinking about them. But beware - if your kids have had nits, you may well have caught them too.

How do you get them?

Oh the shame. But contrary to popular belief, nits don’t prefer dirty hair. It’s sucking blood from our scalps they enjoy. Hairdressers will turn children away if they are infested and most schools expect parents to fess up if their children have nits because they spread easily as lice can crawl from one head to another, so children who like to huddle up and share secrets, or cuddle up to each on the sofa or at a sleepover are also likely to share their nits. They can’t survive on bedding or towels - it’s the head to head contact that counts. But they do reproduce very quickly, and have a life cycle of several weeks, which is why getting rid of them is so tricky. Nits aren’t dangerous but too much head scratching can lead to sores and infection.

How to get rid of nits

There are several methods, but there is no quick fix.

Insecticide is the drastic solution. Look out for products containing malathion and permethrin, which have done well in clinical trials. They will usually involve washing, spraying and combing with a small, fine-toothed nit comb to remove the lice and nits. The drawback is that these are powerful chemicals that can cause irritation and allergic reactions and some are not suitable for asthma sufferers, babies or pregnant women, so read the labels and follow instructions carefully One of them, lindane, was banned in the EU as recently as 2008.

Another method is to coat the lice in a product that suffocates them. Look out for dimeticone, contained in Hedrin, that has good results in clinical trials and is recommended by many mothers we know, one of whom claims to be the world expert on nits. Full Marks, containing cyclomethicone Isopropyl myristate, works by dehydrating the lice.

All these products may require repeated use and combing and they may get rid of the lice more effectively than the eggs. Lice can eventually become resistant to them, rendering them ineffective. At up to about £10 a bottle they are not cheap, especially for big families who may need regular treatment, but your GP may be willing to prescribe them so do ask.

Combing the hair when wet with a special nit comb can be very effective, especially while covered with conditioner as this seems to make the hair harder for the lice to cling to. Any conditioner will do and you can buy a nit comb for a few pounds from any chemist - experiment with different types to see what works for you - so it’s the cheapest option. You can see the lice and eggs (just) on the comb - this can be quite shocking the first time you do it if the infestation is bad. Rinse or wipe the comb to get rid of the creatures each time you pull it through. You may find this easier to do in the bath and it’s slightly more relaxing for the child - but don’t let the lice get back into the bath water.

Do this at least twice a week for 4-5 weeks until you are sure there are no lice or eggs left. Yes it’s, trying, time-consuming and your child will hate it, so get other family members and carers to share the load. Persistence and regularity is everything. Keep checking your child’s hair when dry - you can pull nits out individually by gripping the hair shaft just above the egg and dragging it down between thumb and index fingernail. Hold the top of the hair shaft in your other hand so you don’t pull the hair. Children’s TV can come in very handy as a distraction for your child.

Hoovering is a relatively new treatment offered by firms such as Visit their lounges or have them come to you for special head hoovering, lice dehydrating and a full comb out.

There’s anecdotal evidence that using various natural products such as tea tree or lavender oil in a spray, or added to conditioner, can help. But there’s no clinical evidence to back this up. It may be that any regular combing that goes with it makes it effective.

How to prevent nits

Lice and nits love long hair because there’s more room for them to hide, so tying it back at school or keeping it short helps. Building regular checking and combing long term into the bathtime routine is also essential.

Hilly Janes

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