One word, guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of every parent… lice.
Also known as head lice, these tiny, parasitic insects are no bigger than sesame seeds. They live and breed in human hair and feed by sucking blood from one’s scalp.
Although wingless, lice spread quickly by running and swinging from one head of hair to another, meaning that outbreaks are common among children, who play and associate with each other in close proximity.
Despite a common misconception that lice breed only in dirty, unkempt environments, lice do not discriminate. They infest people of all ages, demographics and socio-economic groups. Lice have actually been infesting human hair for thousands of years.
Although lice are not dangerous and do not spread disease, their bites cause itching and skin irritation. They are also difficult to get rid of, especially if left untreated for an extended period.
If your child is in a childcare facility or school, an outbreak of lice is stressful. You may not know if or what the school will do to combat the problem, or what you should do as a parent to prevent lice, such as regular hair checking.
Through this piece, Vacancy.Care takes a look at childcare and school lice policies and protocols, what you can do as a parent, as well as Australia’s various treatment options.
Head lice policy & protocol in daycare
What the schools should/will do
First and foremost – communication is key. Your childcare centre or school should have a head lice policy and protocol in place so staff know what to do during an outbreak.
The policy will outline what the centre should/will do and how the implemented protocols are communicated to staff and parents.
A head lice policy and protocol typically includes the following information:
- A clear understanding of the aesthetics of lice and lice eggs (known as nits) including colour, shape and size.
- How to identify head lice and nits through a physical examination of the head, neck and hair.
- How the outbreak will be communicated within the facility to staff and to parents, including any written material required.
- Privacy information, and how to be discreet to avoid embarrassment or potential self esteem issues among children and families.
- An outline of the steps facility will take if a parent detects lice in their child’s hair and reports it to the school.
- A clear, concise outline regarding dismissal protocols during an outbreak.
- Details of any regular screening processes or other protocols designed to prevent an outbreak of lice, and how this information is communicated to parents and carers.
Lice breakout in classroom. What to do?
What you as a parent should/will do
It’s important for parents to understand that a head lice outbreak in the classroom can strike at any time. Along with children, head lice can potentially affect teenagers, teachers, parents and anyone associated with an infected person at any time and at any age.
If your childcare centre or classroom informs you there has been an outbreak, you can take steps to help prevent your child from contacting lice. These are detailed below.
- Stay calm! There is no need to cause unnecessary worry or panic with your child or family. Lice are not harmful, but rather are irritating and uncomfortable.
- Check your child’s hair and scalp for signs of lice or eggs.
- Understand that if your child does have lice as a result of the outbreak, it is no fault of theirs, or yours, or the fault of the care facility or school.
- Ask about the centre’s head lice policy and protocol, especially regarding a dismissal policy, as you may need to take your child home and keep them home for a time if they have lice.
- Take the required steps to prevent your child getting lice if they are not affected by the outbreak.
- Talk to your child about the outbreak, and if they are old enough to understand, explain why you will have to check their hair closely every day.
Honesty is the best policy when it comes to dealing with lice. Be honest with your children to help them understand the situation, and with your school or childcare facility. You could help avoid further outbreaks from the outset.
Staying healthy in childcare with a head lice outbreak
What to do to protect yourself, rather than your child
If you discover that your childcare centre is in the midst of a head lice outbreak, there are steps you should take to protect yourself and stay healthy. These are detailed below.
- Get a family member or friend to check your hair immediately for signs of lice or eggs: even if you don’t have an itchy scalp, you may have lice yourself!
- Educate yourself about what to look for in your hair and in your children’s hair during an outbreak of lice.
- Treat infected family members, including yourself, immediately if you find lice.
- Understand that an outbreak of lice is NOT related to cleanliness in the home and that lice only survive in hair, so don’t bother to spend hours cleaning the house or getting anxious about lice overtaking your home.
- Wash and clean any bedding or clothing that has been at childcare, especially hats and headwear.
- Contact other facilities and people your child has been in contact with to inform them of the outbreak. These may include schools, playgroups, mothers groups and family and friends.
How to prevent lice?
As a parent, would you know how to prevent lice? Prevention is a key part in protecting your child from lice and breaking the cycle of lice.
Although prevention does not guarantee complete protection, the steps you take will minimise the life cycle of nits and keep them away from your family for longer.
Prevention involves regular checking and screening, so you will need to know what the lice and eggs look like.
Head lice eggs are tiny, oval shaped and around the same size as a pinhead. You will typically find them closest to the scalp, rather than the end of the hair. They cannot be easily flicked off the hair.
Lice are equally tiny, wingless, dark in colour and around the size of a sesame seed.
Once you know what to look for, you can use the following methods to prevent an outbreak of lice.
- Check your child’s hair, along with other family members, regularly for signs of lice or nits by using a fine comb.
- Consider incorporating this regular checking into your daily routine, such as after bath time.
- Take note if they are suddenly scratching around their head and neck, or complain they have an itchy head (but note this is not always a symptom of lice.)
- If you do notice lice, treat immediately to stop the cycle in its tracks.
- Tie long hair back.
- Avoid using other children’s brushes, combs, hats or other headwear.
- Give permission for your child to take part in regular screening procedures at their daycare or school.
- Talk to your children about avoiding head contact with others, and why this is important in preventing lice (if they are old enough to understand.)
Lice checking/screening – how to inspect for lice
The best way to check and screen for lice is to inspect the hair thoroughly. You can do this using hair conditioner (preferably white) plus a fine comb and white paper towel. We have outlined a detailed process below.
- To start, brush your child’s hair thoroughly and detangle before you begin. When the hair dries, apply the hair conditioner to the scalp.
- Run the comb through small sections of hair. This will result in remnants of conditioner left on the comb.
- Wipe the conditioner on the white paper towel after each stroke.
- Check the tissue for signs of lice or nits.
- Repeat this process several times, or until you see evidence of lice or nits.
- If you find lice or nits, start an appropriate treatment immediately.
If your child is prone to fidgeting, offer them a book to read, movie to watch or game to play while you complete the screening.
Head Lice Eggs
Lice are sometimes colloquially known as nits, with people referring to lice and nits as the same thing. Nits, however, are the head lice eggs, rather than the insect which lays the egg. Female head lice lay eggs on the scalp, and these hatch after 5-7 days.
Once hatched, the lice take around 7-8 days to grow full sized. Once grown, it takes another 7 days to start breeding. This short breeding cycle makes immediate treatment vital in controlling and stopping the life cycle of lice and head lice eggs.
Head lice treatment for kids in Australia
There are two types of effective head lice treatment for kids in Australia: the ‘conditioner and comb’ method, which is similar to the checking and screening process as above, and chemical treatments.
The conditioner and comb method is considered the most effective treatment. Chemical treatments can cause skin irritation and may lead to insecticide resistance, which occurs when the bugs become immune to the chemicals.
The conditioner and comb method works by removing the lice and eggs for a period of 7-10 days, ending the life cycle of the head lice.
To use the conditioner and comb method, you will need hair conditioner (preferably white so you can see the lice easily enough) plus a special head lice comb and white paper towel. The method is outlined below:
- To start, brush your child’s hair thoroughly and detangle before you begin. When the hair dries, apply the hair conditioner all over the scalp.
- Separate the hair into sections and run the head lice comb throughout the hair, which will remove the lice and eggs.
- Wipe the conditioner from comb on the white paper towel and you will be able to see the lice and eggs.
- Continue this step until there are no more lice or eggs on the white paper.
- You should repeat this process every day for 7-10 days, or when no more lice or eggs appear on the tissue.
You can also use the head lice comb for prevention. Keep it on hand during bath or shower times and use it straight after washing to check for lice, especially if there has been an outbreak at childcare or school.
There are a number of chemical treatments on the Australian market. They are generally dry lotions applied to dry hair, or shampoos applied to wet hair.
The active ingredients in head lice treatment in Australia are:
- Synthetic pyrethroids (permethrin, bioallethrin)
- Organophosphates (maldison, malathion)
- Herbal, with or without natural (non-chemical) pyrethrins
Anyone who is pregnant, under 12 months old, or has allergies, open scalp wounds or asthma should check with their GP or pharmacist before starting a treatment.
The treatments work by killing the live lice and the eggs. Once you have applied the treatment and followed the specific instructions, comb the hair with a lice comb to remove the lice and eggs, wiping the comb on white paper towel.
The chemical treatments usually instruct you to repeat the application after seven days. This is because the chemicals do not kill the lice and eggs with the first treatment.
Finding live lice on the paper towel could also mean insecticide resistance. If one chemical treatment does not work, you may need to try another, or try the condition and comb method.
We hope this information gives you an insight into head lice, eggs, prevention and treatment.
You child may go their entire school life without catching lice, or they may be infected several times and there is no way to predict a lice outbreak.
While it’s not always possible to protect your child from getting head lice, there are plenty of things you can do to minimise your chances of them coming home with these unwanted parasites.
So don’t panic, learn what to look for, communicate with your childcare facility and seek immediate treatment. Remember that while irritating for you and your child, lice are ultimately harmless and simply need time and patience to get rid of.