Children across the UK are gradually returning to the classroom, many for the first time since the final bell rang on 20 March.
With the coronavirus continuing to raise concerns, parents may forget the typical back-to-school threat of head lice, with infestations appearing to spike in September.
Social distancing may be the new normal, however, one expert has warned this is rarely followed by children – let alone head lice.
Knowing how to treat the dreaded pests is therefore just as important as ever.
“Head lice thrive on children being close, so you’d think social distancing would mean that they’d be gone for good, but unfortunately not,” Ian Burgess, director of the Insect Research & Development centre in Cambridge and Hedrin spokesperson, told Yahoo UK.
“Anyone who saw children in school playgrounds, even those limited numbers going to schools during lockdown, realises children just cannot socially distance themselves.
“There may be rigid social distance measures put in place in the classroom but it may be harder to manage during playtime and after school activities, such as sports clubs, where close contact will be made.”
Head lice are a dreaded but common problem, with studies suggesting between 4.1% and 22% of youngsters in the UK have an infestation at any one time.
While head lice may be associated with the back-to-school season, Burgess stresses the pests are common all year round, with parents just being more conscious to look out for them as youngsters return to the classroom.
How do head lice spread?
Head lice are small insects that measure up to 3mm (0.11 inch) in length.
Their eggs, or “nits”, are brown and turn white after hatching.
Head lice can cause incessant itching and a feeling of something moving in the hair.
According to Burgess, less than a third (30%) of people experience itching with head lice, highlighting the importance of regular scalp checks. This can be done with a specialist fine-toothed comb.
Contrary to common belief, head lice cannot fly or jump.
The insects typically pass from person-to-person by walking along strands of hair while heads are touching.
While it may seem an inefficient way to get about, lice move fast.
The adult critters get about at a pace of around 23cm (9 inches) a minute.
Scientists from the Medical College of Ohio found they can even “drop” onto shoulders.
Their discovery came about after an outbreak in a US school left 17 teachers with an infestation, despite them insisting their head had not touched anyone else’s.
A team from James Cook University in Australia found that out of 48 people with head lice, two had live insects on their pillowcases, another potential route of transmission.
How to remove head lice
When it comes to removing head lice, physically brushing them out – however laborious – may be the most effective method.
This is due to the pests building up resistance to the chemical insecticides in many head lice products.
The NHS therefore recommends parents first wash their child’s hair with ordinary shampoo, before applying lots of regular conditioner, and combing from the roots to the ends.
This usually takes around 10 minutes in short hair, while long or curly hair can require up to half an hour.
So-called wet combing should be carried out on the first day a live louse is spotted on a person’s scalp. Repeat the process on days five, nine and 13 to catch any newly hatched lice.
On day one and 17, every member of the household’s head should be checked for an infestation.
If after 17 days of brushing the lice have not let up, the NHS recommends going to a pharmacist for advice. They may suggest a medicated lotion or spray.
While it may be tempting to keep a child off school while infested with head lice, the health service stresses there is “no need”.
Itching comes about due to an over-reaction to the saliva head lice release while feeding, which can take weeks to come on.
An infested child may therefore have been attending school, spreading their lice, for more than a month before the pests are spotted.
Parents also should not beat themselves up for the infestation. Head lice are “endemic” in the UK, with research finding no link between the pests and an individual’s cleanliness.