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What are nits? And how to get rid of head lice

Kid scratching his itchy headEvery time the kids are at school or prep or kindy – anywhere that they spend lots of time with other kids – is a danger time for getting nits. It’s an ongoing battle against head lice as soon as the kids are there.

For both first time cases and parents who have fought head lice before, it can be stressful trying to keep your kids lice-free. Chatting with other parents can help you find a way to get lice under control.

Getting informed about nits and how to get rid of head lice will get you halfway to winning the battle. Here are some essential facts about nits all parents need to know.

What are they?

Head lice are six-legged, wingless insects that feed on blood from the scalp. Each of their legs ends in a claw which makes it easy for them to move quickly through hair. They first get into your hair by climbing across from someone else’s head when in close contact. They aren’t picky with the hair they choose – as long as they can feed once they get there.

In the hair, lice can appear from yellowish to brown in colour. The eggs, called nits, are laid on the hair about 1.5 cm from the scalp; they are brown before hatching and white after. Away from the scalp, lice die very quickly – from a few hours to a day away from their food source will kill them.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptom of head lice is itching. The saliva from the lice can irritate the scalp, causing the tell-tale itchiness. That being said, many cases do not develop itching, depending on how sensitive the person’s skin is, so don’t wait for the itching to seek treatment. Alternatively, some nits can be seen in the hair, though the lice themselves are master hiders, and aren’t seen easily. The simplest way to know if you or your child has head lice is to look closely at their hair and scalp, using the method shown below.

Ridding your child’s hair of head lice and nits

Of all the essential facts about nits, the most important is how to get rid of them. One of the most effective ways is the comb and conditioner method.

  1. Sit your child down in front of you, watching television or reading a book to keep them occupied, and brush out their hair so it is untangled.
  2. Apply lots of normal hair conditioner to their scalp, ensuring to massage and comb it through the entire length of their hair and over every strand – the conditioner will stun the lice as it clogs the holes they breathe through and make it easier to remove them. Comb the hair until it is untangled again. For longer hair it may be necessary to section out the hair before applying conditioner, to keep it from tangling even more so.
  3. Using a fine-toothed lice comb, comb out the small sections again, this time capturing the lice and eggs in the teeth of the comb. Continue combing each section until no more nits or lice come out, then move to the next section, until the hair is completely done. Ensure the combed sections are always separated from the to-be-combed sections to avoid transferring lice back over.
  4. Wipe the conditioner from the comb onto a tissue or towel each time – you will be able to see the lice and nits on the tissue. Continue this until no more nits or lice are present.
  5. Rinse the hair and change any pillowcases and sheets before bed, in case stray lice are still alive and could reinfest your child. Ensure to vacuum any areas that infested hair may have come in contact with, such as carpets or even car seats, to ensure no living lice are present, though they will die quickly.
  6. Repeat the process one or two days later, if there are still lice found, try a medicated shampoo or lice treatment found at the chemist, and always strictly follow the directions on the product you choose.

Truths and Myths

Will head lice always make you itchy?

No – depending on your skin type, there can be no itchiness, so check regularly.

Can lice jump or fly long distances to reach your hair?

No – their feet are more like claws, so they cling to hair easily, and their legs have very little jumping power in them. They don’t have wings so can’t fly at all.

Can pets give you lice?

No – lice only like human scalps, and would die if on a pet.

Does having lice mean you’re dirty? Or do they like clean hair better?

Neither – lice don’t care either way if your hair is dirty or clean, they just want the blood in your scalp.

If the treatment isn’t working, should I up the dosage?

No – it is not proven to enhance the effects of the treatment if the dosage is simply higher. Change the product you are using as soon as possible if it doesn’t work.

Can lice be immune to some treatments?

Yes – the active ingredients in the medicated products are one of four types, and the lice can become resistant to one, or some of them. These actives ingredients are either:

  • Pyrethrins
  • Synthetic pyrethroids (permithrin and bioallethrin)
  • Organophosphates (malathrin or maldison)
  • Herbal and essential oils (non-chemical)

If you find one product is not working, check the active ingredient and find a product which uses a different one. Head lice are less likely to become immune to the more natural products.

Can my kids get sick from having nits?

No – head lice are very rarely shown to carry disease or cause infections themselves – that being said, excessive itching can break the skin and sometimes cause infections, so seek immediate treatment if this is an issue.


Head lice can be a scary thought for parents, but if you’re armed with the essential facts about nits and how to beat them, treatment can be easy. If you have any concerns for your child’s health about the lice or the treatments available, do not hesitate to seek advice from your doctor. Always contact your school or day care to inform them if your kids have lice to ensure other parents are aware. Most importantly, find what works to get rid of head lice for your family, and stick to it.

For more school info and tips, check out our Back to School Hub.

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