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Back to school: How to beat tougher-than-ever head lice

Ahram Online has the low-down on one of Egyptian parents' most dreaded foes

Ingy Deif, Friday 30 Sep 2016
(Reuters)
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The new school year has kicked off and almost 19 million pupils are enrolled in the different educational stages, according to the data recently published by the Ministry of Education.

But with the new school year comes one of the most frequently encountered health and hygiene problems, and one that creates dread in every parent: head lice.

Lice are small six-legged insects that feed on the blood of the scalp and live on human hair; they live up to thirty days, during which time they can lay up to three hundred eggs.

"In recent years, mothers have noticed lice infection incidents have been on the rise, with the problem reoccurring at closer intervals. It is as if the pests have grown resistant to common treatments that are sold in pharmacies," a mother of two daughters told Ahram Online.

Experts deny the presence of a surge

"It had always been a reoccurring problem that some encounter every now and then. Nothing has changed except that people are more open to discuss issues like that now," Dr. Iman Tayel, a dermatology consultant, told Ahram Online.

Nevertheless, Tayel admits that frequent use of common chemical remedies could result in the bugs becoming resistant to them.

"According to recent studies in the US, some common remedies like those containing synergized pyrenthrins and permethrins were found to be not as effective in eradicating the lice completely due to frequent and recurrent use. The bugs simply became resistant," she said.

"I am not stating that local products in Egypt are not as efficient as before, but rather stressing that personal hygiene and regular check-ups to eradicate the problem earlier on are a better solution than frequent applications at short intervals."

Fatima Zahran, a health and hygiene inspector in Egyptian schools for almost three decades, says that the most common means of infection are bus seats, sharing brushes and caps, close physical contact during work or art, and exchanging uniform items during sports.

"In my experience, most kids pass on such a problem to one another at one point in time. There is no shame about it. The most important thing is to check your child every once in a while.”

The lowdown on lice

Zahran and Tayel listed a few need-to-know points for anxious parents:

  • Lice infections are very quick as they breed rapidly. The sooner you act the better the result.
  • They can be difficult to see but are possible to detect. The lice are light brown and semi-transparent while the nits are tiny white spots. You can also spot the small black droppings of the insects on pillows.
  • Although they feed on blood, favour heat and humidity, they actually don’t transmit disease.
  • Eradication by natural means is worth a try but not always effective. It could be in the form of applying for at least 30 minutes mouth wash which kills lice through a high content of alcohol, or other substances that could suffocate the lice, like petroleum jelly (Vaseline) or mayonnaise.
  • Removal of dead insects is always easier after soaking the hair in vinegar
  • Part of the necessary clean-up required is washing  bed coverings in very hot water, and spraying collars of clothes with the specified treatment.
  • Sharing caps, combs, and brushes are a major cause of transmission as the insect moves by crawling and not by jumping as commonly understood. Also children tend to play with their heads close to each other which also adds to the problem.
  • Nits and lice might also cling to eyelashes and eye brows in cases of severe infection.
  • Lice live on any kind of hair no matter the degree of cleanliness or the length. Washing the hair frequently has nothing to do with eradicating the pest.
  • For protection, two to three drops of tea tree essential oil can be added to shampoos or conditioners, and the same amount of drops to a cupful of water to be sprayed on collars and clothes.

"Tea tree oil is had been an ingredient in many remedies used to treat psoriasis,  burns and other problems. It is effective in protecting against lice infections, provided that it is totally pure with no additives," comments Tayel.

"It must be noted that because tree oil has a very powerful smell, it could irritate asthmatic children. It must be diluted and tried on skin before use to and tried in a patch of skin before use to avoid allergic reaction on scalp. This obviously applies to chemical remedies as well," she concludes.
 

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