Head lice (nits)

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Head lice are very common. They are small insects that lay their eggs (nits) on strands of hair. Head lice can be uncomfortable but are not a risk to your health.

Symptoms of head lice

Head lice are small flat insects, about 2 to 3 mm long. They live on the skin of a person’s head where the hair grows from (the scalp). Head lice lay their eggs (nits) on strands of hair.

Scratching, scratch marks or a rash can be a sign that your tamariki has head lice. But not all tamariki complain of itchy heads.

The main sign of head lice is being able to see the insects or nits by checking closely for them.


Head lice can be white, brown or dark grey. They are usually in the hair at the back of the neck or behind the ears.

Eggs (nits)

Female head lice lay about 7 to 10 eggs each night. The eggs are small and hard (like a grain of salt) and are normally pale grey in colour. Eggs are laid close to the scalp and are firmly glued to strands of hair. After hatching, the empty egg cases are white.

Eggs hatch in 9 days, and head lice live for 40 days.

How you get head lice

Anyone can get head lice — it does not matter how clean or dirty a person’s hair is. Head lice spread by crawling from 1 person’s hair to another’s — usually between people who are in close contact, such as family or school classmates.

Head lice:

  • cannot jump, fly or swim
  • do not carry disease.

They stay on the scalp after swimming or bathing or showering.

Find out if you or your tamariki have head lice

At least once a week, check the scalp for head lice insects and eggs, especially:

  • around the hairline at the back of the neck
  • behind the ears
  • on the crown (top of the head).

You can also use the wet combing method to check for head lice.

If you find head lice or eggs, you will need to treat them.

If you have head lice

Tamariki with live lice should stay away from kura or school until treatment has started.

Treatment for head lice

Chemical treatments or wet combing are the usual ways to treat head lice. Talk to your pharmacist, healthcare provider or nurse for advice.

Ordinary shampoo or soap will not kill head lice. Do not use fly spray, kerosene or animal treatments, as these may harm tamariki.

Chemical treatments

Chemical treatments use a special shampoo or lotion that kills the head lice and the eggs. Follow the instructions that are supplied with the chemical treatments.

Always do a second treatment 7 to 10 days after the first. This is to kill any head lice that may have hatched after the first treatment.

Wet combing

  • Wet the hair and scalp with conditioner (this makes it easier to see the head lice).
  • Use a fine-toothed comb to check for head lice and eggs and to comb them out. It is best to use a fine metal comb, or a special head lice comb you can get from a pharmacy.
  • Comb the full length of the hair, from the scalp to the ends. Work your way around the head so that you have combed all of the hair.
  • If you see any head lice or eggs, clean the comb by wiping it on a tissue or a paper towel, or rinse the comb before you use it again.
  • After you have combed all of the hair, rinse out the conditioner.
  • If you find lice or eggs, repeat these steps every day if you can manage it, but at least every 2 to 3 days. You can stop when you find no lice or eggs for 3 days in a row.

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

Stop head lice from spreading

It is not possible to completely prevent head lice because they are very common. But there are things you can do to stop head lice from spreading.

  • Brush hair every day. This may help kill or injure head lice and stop them from laying eggs.
  • Do not share brushes, combs, headbands, ribbons, hairclips, helmets or hats — anything that touches someone’s head.
  • Have short hair or wear long hair in a ponytail to make it less likely you will catch head lice.
  • Tamariki should hang their clothes on their own hook at school.
  • Tamariki should keep their clothes apart from other children’s in swimming or sport changing rooms.
  • If you do get head lice in your whānau, everyone that has them should be treated at the same time.

Let the school and any other close friends know that your tamariki have been treated for head lice.


Kidshealth has information on head lice, including key points to remember, and links to resources.

Head lice — DermNet NZ

DermNet NZ has photographs of headlice so you know what to look for.

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