One of my friends is a primary school teacher at a middle sized school (two classes in each year). She reckons that there's a class sending out one of those letters every week.
So nits are something that, if you've got young primary school children, you're going to have to deal with. On the plus side, it does get less of a problem as they get older and aren't so prone to putting their heads together.
After a discussion with other parents, many of whom admitted they had no idea how to deal with nits at all, I decided to go online and research this myself. Unfortunately, thanks to a bad outbreak in my son's nursery when he was 2, I have some experience as well.
One thing though talking to the other mums was how few of us had had nits as children. None of us in fact. Maybe there is a case for bringing back the nit nurses after all? Surely there's a way that this can be done without stigmatising children?
Busting the myths
Nits don't care if you've got clean hair or dirty hair - they're really not at all fussy about the state of your scalp. Nor do they show a preference for long hair over short hair. They live at the follicle end so they're not at all concerned about hair length. Nits do need to be able to move about easily though, so one guard against nits is closely braided hair.
Infection occurs when the nits move from head to head, and they do this by walking. No matter what you've heard - they don't jump and the little critters don't sit about on towels or clothing waiting for a new victim to happen by as they can't survive for long away from your body. They only move when there's a food source.
That said of course the creatures can end up on other surfaces, and will hop onto a new host if one happens to be around before they die, so you should still be careful.
Looking for the little critters
First off, what should you be looking for if you're doing a check for nits? The 'nit' is actually the little eggs that the head louse lays, although people usually use the word to mean both the eggs and the lice. Eggs can hatch between a week and two weeks after they are laid.
Don't look for cues like your child scratching their head - unfortunately not everyone reacts to headlice. You'll only find them itchy if you're allergic to either the bite or the (ick!) faeces.
The lice are tiny, like little seeds off a bun but with legs. Try brushing or combing your child's hair over paper - you may find some fall out. Use a nit comb - these cost very little and you can buy one from any pharmacy. You'll need a co-operative child though and that can be hard if they're particularly young. It wasn't easy to get my 2 year old to sit for a hair combing and we used a large bar of chocolate as a bribe!
The parts of the head that lice like the most are behind the ears and at the nape of the neck. Hmmm is that why mum's were always so keen to scrub our ears and necks so hard when we were kids?
The eggs look like little dots, and will be stuck to an individual hair. You'll find them easily enough if your child has light coloured hair. It isn't so easy if, like my son, your child's hair is dark brown or black.
Dosing your child's head (and yours) every few weeks isn't the best way to avoid catching nits. I've been using the 3 in 1 Vosene shampoo for kids for the last year. Apart from the smell, which is ghastly, the shampoo is actually pretty nice on the hair and I use it myself too! I also use their spray on conditioner, which again smells ghastly but leaves my hair feeling great. And for some reason, I feel like it works better than the shampoo.
So far we haven't had an infestation despite a few nit warning letters from school. But, while I think that it helps, I wouldn't rely on something like a nit repellent shampoo entirely. I do know of children who've still managed to get nits.
So, as well as regularly checking his hair (and behind the ears) every week, every couple of weeks or at least once a month I coat his hair in a silicon based conditioner, and run the nit comb through it. The silicon based condition coats the adult lice and drowns them. It also makes it dead easy to get the comb through their hair, and against the light coloured conditioner it is easy to see the adult nits.
Our pharmacist, who is excellent, refuses to sell any of the head lice pesticides that are quick acting, so I can't really comment on those. He firmly believes that only the over night ones are worth using, to ensure that the lice don't build up a resistance to the chemicals.
Insecticide type products include Derbac M, Full Marks Liquid, Full Marks Mousse, Full Marks Lotion, Lyclear Creme Rinse.
I used the Full Marks Liquid (although I'm not sure if that's available in the UK now) on the whole family when we had a really bad infestation, and it worked really well. Followed the treatment and did not have any further outbreaks.
Finally there are natural insecticides. I can't recommend any as I've never tried these at all and given how tough nits are, I'm not sure I'd be able to trust them. I don't like the idea of using chemicals either, so since that first awful outbreak we've dealt with any possible nits using a comb.
Specifically an electric comb. I just went out and bought the Boots own brand electric nit comb (£20) - there might be better on the market but they seemed pretty much the same to me. You run it through your hair and it zaps any little critters. It is strangely satisfying! This only kills the adults, so you need to keep doing it daily for about two weeks or more. It is time consuming but a good alternative to the chemical solution.