Human Head Lice

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The human head louse is an insect, 2-3 mm long, which lives on human hairs and survives by sucking tiny amounts of blood from the skin. There are three distinct types of louse which live in different areas of the body - the head louse, pubic louse and body louse (which lives on the chest of hairy men). Technically they are called respectively Pediculus capitis, Phthirus pubis, and Pediculus corporis. Except for their location on the body, their symptoms, mode of transmission and treatment are similar.

To the great embarrassment of parents, the school teacher is often the first person to notice that a child has head lice. Head lice are very common, even in the most meticulous households, because the louse can spread from one person to another very quickly. Children are most commonly affected, but adults may catch these tiny insects too. They spread by close contact, such as when children are huddled head to head in discussion, by sharing a brush or comb, or by wearing another person's hat.

The female louse lays eggs and glues them to the hairs. The eggs hatch after six days, and grow into adults capable of further reproduction in about ten days. They live for four to six weeks. The nits that can be seen attached to hairs are actually egg cases. They can be differentiated from dandruff and other scalp diseases because they are stuck firmly to the hair, and will not brush out easily. The most common areas for the head lice to congregate are the forehead and behind the ears.

There are often no symptoms of an infestation with lice, but in severe cases there may be a mild itching from the bites on the skin or scalp. The only way to diagnose the problem is to actually see the insects or nits. Once the problem is discovered, treatment is necessary to prevent any further spread. Exclusion of children with head lice from school is only necessary until proper treatment has been given.

It is usually advisable to treat all the members of a family, even if only one is obviously affected. Preparations available from chemists that contain malathion or gamma benzene hexachloride kill the insects. They are available in both lotion and shampoo form. The treatment should be given weekly for two or three weeks to kill any insects as they hatch from the eggs. The hair does not need to be cut short unless there are repeated infestations that prove difficult to control. Eggs that remain after treatment may be removed by combing with a very fine metal comb.

Some 'old wives tales' that are associated with head lice must be put to rest. Head lice are NOT associated with a lack of cleanliness. Lice cannot survive for long away from humans, so clothing and pillows need only normal washing and no special treatment. Ordinary hair and body washing cannot prevent or cure lice. A specially medicated soap is the best option for treating and prevention.

Most cases of louse infestation can be easily treated at home, but if there is any doubt about the diagnosis, or the problem becomes recurrent, the advice of a doctor should be sought.

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