Stop scratching

Coping with infestation

Lice, scabies, bed bugs and other delights… Just the mention of any one of these usually starts everyone in the room scratching.

Just the thought of creepy crawlies under your skin, in your hair or in your bed may make you feel like throwing out your clothes and bed clothes and disinfecting the house. But rest easy!

A common question in doctors' surgeries is "how on earth could I have got that?" The answer is simple, scabies, lice and bed bugs are common and can affect people from all walks of life. The good news is that they are easily treated and do not require any drastic measures to eradicate them from your house.

Meeting lice head-on

Head lice are a common problem in schoolchildren. They are spread easily from child to child in the classroom and you may be advised by letter from your school head or nurse that there is an outbreak of lice and your children are at risk.

There are many treatment options available. You can buy lotions, cream rinse or mousse — all are equally effective provided the instructions are followed properly.

At the egg stage, lice are the hardest to kill especially when newly laid. All of the treatments act against the insect's nervous system, which young eggs don't yet possess. Therefore some eggs usually survive a single treatment. It is most important that whatever treatment you choose, a second application is made seven days after the first.

Shampoo formulations are not usually effective as they are not long enough in contact with the lice to penetrate fully into their nervous systems. All treatments currently available in Ireland need to be left on for at least 12 hours.

The treatments can either be water based or alcohol based. Many people find water based preparations less of an irritant to the scalp. Your pharmacist will be able to advise you. New formulations coming on the market will act like a conditioner. They can be applied to wet hair for 10 minutes and then as the hair dries naturally, the product will continue to work for a few days.

As with scabies, if one child develops head lice it is best to treat everyone in the family at the same time even if they have no symptoms.

Scabies — a little mite

Scabies is caused by a mite. The female mites burrow under the skin and lay eggs daily. These hatch after a few days, more mites appear and the infection then spreads around the skin's surface. Affected patients complain of a persistent itch. This is usually worse at night or after a hot bath. Many people do not develop any rash but you may get blisters or irritated skin between the fingers, on the wrists and on the penis in the male. The itch is actually due to an allergic reaction to the mite.

You catch scabies by skin contact, eg. holding hands with someone who already has the infection. It is now thought that you cannot catch it from clothes or bed linen.

There are several types of lotion which can be used to treat scabies. Your GP will advise you on the one which is most suitable in your case. However, there are a few instructions which are common to all treatments.

The lotion must be applied to the whole of the body, sparing the face and neck in adults but paying particular attention to the finger webs, behind the ears and the genitalia. Painting on the lotion with a 2" paint brush provides the best cover.

If the hands are washed, re-treat them immediately. The lotion should be left on for 12-24 hours depending on the type. A single treatment is usually effective. You may still itch for up to a month after treatment but this doesn't mean that the treatment has not worked.

Much of the itchiness is due to an allergic reaction to components of the scabies mite. You will continue to itch until all of the dead mites have been shed from your skin. This can take up to a month. It is important that all family members, close contacts and sexual partners should be treated at the same time even if they have no symptoms.

The day after the treatment you are no longer infective and children can return to school and adults to work, etc. Clothes and bed clothes just need an ordinary hot wash.


When the flea bites

The most common type of flea to bite humans are those associated with cats and dogs. Occasionally fleas from birds can be a problem in spring and early summer when they gain access to bedrooms from nests under eaves of houses. Fleas commonly bite people under the ankles causing itchy red bumps or blisters commonly known as 'hives'.

The mistake pet owners make when fleas are discovered is the false belief that regular use of a dusting powder or flea collar will keep their pet free from fleas. In fact the flea will lay eggs in the animal's bedding, in fitted carpets and in any part of the house which the animal has access to.

Once flea infestation has been confirmed the animal's bedding and the carpets and furnishings of the infested household need to be treated with an insecticide spray. There are several suitable preparations available. Get advice about this from either your local vet or an environmental health officer who can be contacted through your local health board offices.

Bed bugs

Bed bugs live in cracks and crevices in furniture or walls near where people sleep. Bed frames and mattress seams are popular with the bugs because they allow them easy access to food in the form of human blood.

Tell tale signs of infestation include brown or black spots of excrement about the size of a large pinhead near cracks and crevices such as on bedheads. People are usually bitten while asleep at night and again develop 'hives'.

If you suspect that your house is infested with bed bugs, again the best person to contact is your local environmental health officer. They dismantle any items that they suspect are infested to see how bad the infestation is and then can treat the whole room by spraying with an insecticide.


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