Head lice

Head lice

Head lice are small insects that live on the human scalp. They are common and cause concern and frustration for parents, children and young people. Wet combing with conditioner and a fine tooth nit comb (without using chemicals) is an effective way to find and remove head lice, if done properly.

Key points to remember

Check out a couple of resources for printing at the bottom of the page.

  • head lice are small, flat insects that live and lay eggs on the human scalp - the scalp provides food and warmth for the eggs to hatch
  • head lice are sometimes called nits, kutis, kutu bugs, utu or riha
  • they are a common problem and cause concern and frustration for parents and children
  • anyone can catch head lice - catching them has nothing to do with poor hygiene
  • head lice spread by crawling from the hair of one person to another
  • if you find live head lice or eggs on your child's scalp, treat your child and check everyone in the house
  • treatment of head lice is usually by physical methods (wet combing) or chemical/herbal treatments
  • if you choose to use a chemical or herbal treatment, speak to your pharmacist, doctor or nurse for advice about what treatment to use and how to use it
  • never use fly spray, kerosene or treatments intended for animals – these may harm children and adults

Combing hair with a fine tooth head lice comb

Wet combing with conditioner and a fine tooth nit comb (without using chemicals) is an effective way to find and remove head lice, if done properly.

What are head lice?

Head lice are small insects found on the human head. They grow to about the size of a pin head, sesame seed or grain of sand.

Head lice live on the hair and feed by sucking blood from the scalp. They are pale grey (before feeding) and reddish brown (after feeding).  Head lice do not carry or pass on disease.

Who can get head lice?

Anyone can get head lice. They are a common problem and cause concern and frustration for parents and children.

Catching head lice has nothing to do with poor hygiene. 

How do people get head lice?

People get head lice from head to head (hair to hair) contact with someone who already has head lice. This can easily happen when children play or sleep together and their heads touch.

Head lice can only crawl from hair to hair. They can't fly or jump from head to head.

Head lice only survive on humans. They die quickly when they are not on the head, usually within 24 hours.

How do I check for and treat head lice?

Check for head lice whenever you are brushing your child's hair, or any time they are scratching their head. 

Head lice can live all over the head but particularly like warm places behind the ears, around the bottom of the hair line, and on top of the head. They can look like grains of sand or dandruff.

Wet combing with cheap conditioner and a fine-tooth head lice (nit) comb is an effective way to find and remove head lice, if done properly.  You don't need to buy ­expensive products to get rid of head lice. You can buy a fine-tooth head lice comb from your pharmacy. It can take up to an hour to do a wet combing session. It depends how long and how thick your child's hair is.

Step by step

If you think your child might have head lice, then use the wet combing technique.

Step 1

Make your child comfortable and let them watch their favourite programme, movie or other entertainment. 

Comb or brush any knots out of your child's hair with an ordinary comb. Put plenty of conditioner all through wet or dry hair, starting at the scalp and going all the way down to the hair ends.

Applying hair conditioner to a child's hair Applying conditioner to a child's hair Applying conditioner to a child's hair

Step 2

Comb hair conditioner through hair, still using an ordinary comb – this stuns the head lice and makes it difficult for them to grip the hair or crawl around.

Combing a child's hair Combing a child's hair Combing a child's hair

Step 3

Change to a fine tooth, head lice comb and comb sections of your child's hair. Comb from the roots to the ends of the hair.

Using a fine tooth head lice combUsing a fine tooth head lice combUsing a fine tooth head lice comb

Step 4

After each comb, wipe the conditioner on to a paper towel or tissue. Check the tissue or paper towel for lice and eggs (a magnifying glass may help you to see them more easily).

Wiping fine tooth head lice comb on a tissue

Step 5

Repeat the combing for every part of the head, section by section. Comb each section at least 4 or 5 times before moving on to the next section.

Using a fine tooth head lice combUsing a fine tooth head lice comb

Step 6

After you have combed the whole head, rinse out the conditioner.

Step 7

If you find lice or eggs, repeat these steps every day until you find no lice or eggs for 3 days in a row.

Step 8

Check the hair of everyone in the house twice a week for the next 2 weeks to make sure everyone stays clear.

Once you think your child is free of head lice and eggs, make sure to check them once a week. 

What about other family members?

If you find head lice, you should check the rest of your family. If you find head lice on other family members, treat them all on the same day.

If your family has head lice, tell anyone who has had head-to-head contact with them, so that they can check and treat their family if needed.

Tell your school so that they can tell other parents to check their children for head lice and treat if necessary.

Can you prevent head lice?

It's very difficult to prevent - there is no product available that prevents head lice.

Tying long hair back and checking weekly for lice, using the conditioner and comb method, can help prevent the spread.

You don't need to wash clothing and bedding on a hot wash - it's unlikely to help prevent the spread of head lice.

Resources for printing

  • a 2 page guide with information about head lice on the first page and a step by step guide to the wet combing technique on the second
  • a 1 page step by step guide to the wet combing technique, without the extra information about head lice   

Thumbnail image of a handout on head liceThumbnail image of a handout on head lice

This page last reviewed 02 February 2017.
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