Coping with head lice at work

Most people are of the opinion that head lice are something unique to kids when in fact it can and does affect all ages. Presented with a head lice problem in their child can cause some parents and guardians real anxiety. This anxiety is heightened by the reality that the parent could also catch head lice and transfer them to people at work.

This would even cause a statue to break out in a cold sweat. Can you imagine the perception of the parent from colleagues who see the head lice, or even worse catch them from the parent?

So, let’s explore what you need to know about how to cope with head lice at work…

How easy is it to catch head lice?

It only takes 30 seconds for a single head louse to move from one scalp to another.2 They do not jump, or fly from head-to-head, they can only crawl. So, when you are sitting head-to-head with your child as you read them a story or using the same hairbrush, you could be catching head lice.

Head lice mainly move from person to person by prolonged head-to-head contact but there is also the chance of catching them through sharing personal items such as hairbrushes, combs, towels, hats, helmets, etc.1,2 So, if you think your child has head lice, there is a real possibility that you could too and potentially spread to other people you have close contact with.

How long can you have head lice before noticing?

Did you know that not every person gets an itchy scalp when they have head lice? You only develop an itchy head if you have an allergy to the saliva of the head louse bite. If you do develop an allergic reaction to head lice, then it can still take between 4 and 6 weeks before you will start to feel itchy. That is a long time to have head lice and not know about it. Considering female lice lay around 5 eggs a day, you could have a whole army of lice before you even start scratching.

For those who do not develop an allergy to head lice, there is the possibility that their infestation could go unnoticed for a long time until they, or someone they know (e.g. work colleague), sees a living head louse moving about their hair or clothes. Can you imagine the horror on their face? How easy would you find telling a colleague that you noticed they had head lice?

How would you recognise head lice in the workplace?

It is not always easy to know someone in the workplace has head lice as not everyone gets an itchy head, and most people catch and treat a head lice infestation before the head lice themselves become noticeable. Head lice don’t really like the limelight and will make every effort to hide in the hair where they can go undetected, so it is not always easy to recognise head lice at work. However, here are some other symptoms associated with head lice that may be noticeable in the workplace:

1) Red bumps or sores on the scalp, neck, or shoulders caused by the body’s over-reaction to the lice bites1

2) Oozing or crusting sores on the scalp, neck, or shoulder – usually caused by infected bites or excessive scratching1

3) The person may appear tired or irritable because night-time scratching has kept them awake1 – be mindful that tiredness and irritability can be caused by other conditions such as stress, anxiety or poor physical health

4) The person may seem anxious1 about people looking at their hair or they may wear head clothing to hide their hair

Remember, for many people there is a misconception that head lice are associated with ‘dirty hair’ or poor hygiene. Some people may feel shame or embarrassment to find out they have head lice. If you, or someone you know at work has head lice, be reassured that head lice are a common problem and do not have anything to do with personal hygiene, they do not carry disease and, if you excuse the itching, they are relatively harmless parasites that are easily treated.

Can you go to work if you have head lice?

Unless your employer has a ‘no-nit’ policy, then there is no reason you cannot go to work if you have head lice.3

There is no guidance saying children should be kept off school if they have head lice,3 so the likelihood of your employer wanting you to stay off work will be low.

Do I need to inform my work that I have head lice?

You only need to inform you employer if you have head lice if they have a policy that requires you to do so. The only other occasion where it may be necessary to inform your employer is if you have a job which results in frequent, prolonged head-to-head contact with others and you are concerned there may be a potential outbreak of head lice that needs to be stopped. Your employer may consider sending an email communication to all employees that:

1) Informs them that there has been a report of head lice

2) Maintains the anonymity of the infested employee

3) Reassures everyone the situation is not the result of poor facilities maintenance

4) Informs them of actions to take if they suspect that they have caught head lice.

What will my colleagues think if I have head lice?

We are not mind-readers when it comes to predicting the thoughts or reactions of others. However, what we do know is that there is a lot of stigma and myths around head lice which can sometimes cause people to jump to the wrong conclusions. It is possible that some people may react negatively to the presence of head lice but remember this is most likely due to the lack of education and awareness surrounding this very common condition. Head lice are not something to be ashamed of, and for many parents and guardians they are a normal part of having children.

How can you reduce the spread of head lice at work?

If you do not feel comfortable informing your employer and there is no need to, then you can take practical steps to help prevent head lice in your workplace, such as:

1) Eliminating, or reducing any direct head-to-head contact

2) Do not allow other people to share your personal items such as hairbrushes, hair-ties, hats, helmets, etc

3) Wipe down any areas where you head may have been in contact with (e.g. seat headrest)

How do I check my own hair for head lice?

If you have school-aged children at home, then it is recommended that you check their head once a week for live lice using a method called wet combing. If you make this part of your routine, you are reducing the likelihood of you catching head lice and taking them to work.

If you have found head lice and nits in your child’s hair, it is recommended that everyone in the household is checked, including yourself. However, it is not easy to check your own head. You could ask your partner to check, or family member or friend you trust. If there is no-one at home you feel can help you check your hair for head lice, then you can go to your local pharmacy who can offer you the discretion of their consultation room and a friendly member of staff who will know how to check for head lice.

How do I get rid of head lice?

Head lice, even the so-called ‘super-lice’ are easily treated with over-the-counter preparations. Head lice treatments are available in shampoo, lotion, spray and mousse formats to allow you to choose one that suits your needs. Ask your pharmacist about non-pesticide head lice preparations that kill lice and eggs by physical means, as they are less likely to be affected by resistance and more likely to result in the successful elimination of lice.

How to handle head lice anxiety

If you are feeling anxious about head lice, you are one of many people that feel the same way. Head lice are no danger to our health, yet the thought of hosting these creepy crawlies leaves people shivering. Here are some tips that can help ease anxiety associated with head lice:

Educate yourself with the facts – Knowing more about lice can help you feel more in control and understand how to handle the problem, which can help reduce your stress about the situation4

Silence your inner critic – some people give themselves a hard time for catching head lice as they see it is a reflection on their cleanliness and self-esteem. Catching head lice is almost a rite of passage for humans, particularly young humans, and not a poor reflection on you as an individual or parent. So, cut yourself some slack and silence those unhelpful voices in your head.

Take action – if you or your child has head lice, channel your energy into getting rid of the little invaders instead of allowing the anxiety to take over.