Got lice? Don’t freak out. Head lice (scientifically known as Pediculus humanus capitis) is a very common problem, most frequently encountered by school-aged children. If you are a parent reading this article, it does NOT mean your child has poor hygiene or that your home is unsanitary. It simply means that your child’s hair somehow came in contact with one of these little critters who decided their scalp was a pretty nice place to start raising a family.
This blog post is NOT intended to give you a comprehensive biological and pharmacologic survey of everything there is to know about head lice and how to get rid of them. I don’t address prescription treatments. It is simply my opinion on the steps you need to take to get rid of these little blood-suckers as quickly as possible. I’m a pharmacist. I’m also a father of 4 kids, one of whom recently had head lice. While the subject is fresh in my mind, I thought I would write about it.
For a FREE downloadable Shopping List and 10 Steps to treating head lice, CLICK HERE.
What are head lice?
They are parasites that survive only on a human host (your dog won’t get infested, and does NOT need to be treated). They can live for about 30 days and the female can lay about 3-4 eggs per day. Eggs hatch about 1 week after being laid. The eggs are typically found attached to a shaft of hair near the scalp. Lice cannot fly (they have no wings) and cannot jump. They crawl, and even that is done rather slowly. You should check out some images of the lice and their eggs online so you can more easily identify them. For a nice summary of what head lice are, this handout created by the Yorktown school system is done well.
Treating Head Lice
While there are prescription treatments for head lice available, most often dealing with head lice does not require a trip to the pediatrician. or doctor. You can usually manage this on your own with the help of products you can purchase at your local pharmacy.
Here is the scoop: There are really only 3 things you need to do to get rid of head lice:
- KILL THEM and/or
- REMOVE THEM AND
- PREVENT RE-INFECTION
That is it. Now, I should tell you that not everyone will want to use all 3 steps. For example:
- Some people will opt for only #1 and #3. That is fine, and it may work.
- Some people opt for #2 and #3. That is also fine, and it may also work.
- Some people opt for #1, #2 and #3. That is also fine, and in my opinion is the best approach.
Given these facts, here is my advice and what I think you need to know:
This first step is the most controversial. In theory, if you were able to remove 100% of the lice and un-hatched eggs by combing, you wouldn’t need any sort of “killing” approach. But since it only takes 1 pregnant female or 1 egg to perpetuate this problem, most people opt for some type of killing treatment. Killing them is typically done 1 of 2 ways: Smothering or Chemicals.
Smothering: Typically done with olive oil (other home-remedy approaches include using butter or mayonnaise, but I don’t recommend these). Those who advocate this approach tend to believe the “chemical” approach is dangerous (I personally believe the OTC treatments are safe, but I don’t recommend the prescription lindane). Saturate the head with olive oil and leave on for 2 hours. Use a shower cap to keep the oily hair from getting on anything else. The oil blocks the breathing apparatus of the lice, and they will suffocate. After 2 hours comb the hair thoroughly to remove any eggs and dead lice. For a nice review of this approach check out this free document from the folks of Muskegon County.
Chemicals: OTC products like NIX or RID have pediculicides (chemicals that kill lice) which kill the living head lice. There are no shortage of websites and experts who will tell you these are all dangerous or that lice are resistant to them anyway. I believe the currently available OTC products are reasonably safe for otherwise healthy persons, and that although resistance is certainly possible, it is not universal. If I had to go with an OTC treatment I would go with the Nix product, as it has some ability to kill the eggs along with the live lice. Always follow the directions on the package, and do NOT use more than recommended. My personal recommendation is to use the Nix product.
The most important thing you can do is to try to get rid of them by COMBING them out. You therefore need to get a GOOD comb designed to remove lice and their eggs. In my opinion the combs that come with the typical OTC lice shampoo/lotion products are junk. Buy a decent comb like the LiceMeister Comb or similar version. You want long, strong (preferably metal) teeth spaced very closely together.
First wash the hair and apply a conditioner. The conditioner will make it easier to comb through. A detangling spray is fine too. Towel-dry the head, but don’t blow dry. Comb through all the hair a section at a time. Be thorough. It will take time. Dispose of any lice or eggs you find by pulling them off the comb with a wipe and throwing it into a trash bag. NOTE: If you plan to use one of the chemical treatments mentioned above, avoid using a conditioner or detangling spray as it will make them less effective.
You should know that NOT ALL the eggs you find will be live eggs. Some will be the remnants of eggs that have already hatched. Some simply won’t be viable. But since they are so small, you won’t be able to tell the difference. Comb out as many as you can find.
For more details on combing removal, MD MAMA has a nice article.
Anything that may have come into contact with the infected person’s hair needs to be either washed/dried, disinfected or isolated in a plastic bag for 2 weeks.
Vacuum any furniture he/she may have come in contact with. You will need to repeatedly do this with bedding and clothing and furniture. Some professionals recommend getting all new hair brushes and combs, but really you should be able to kill any critters on them with hot water (130 degrees F) or in a bag and into the freezer for at least 12 hours.
Do you need to buy those special sprays to treat furniture and bedding? I don’t personally think so. Washing, vacuuming and disinfecting is fine.
SUMMARY & DOWNLOAD
This article outlined the basics to treating head lice. You will have to choose a “killing” approach on your own. But the basic steps of , Kill Them, Remove Them and Prevent Re-infection are the outline of a good, solid and medically sound approach to treating head lice. I recommend contacting your physician after failing with 2 treatments or if other medical conditions complicate the treatment options.
Feel free to check out the CDC website for more information on treating head lice.
DOWNLOAD: For my OWN personal recommendations on treating head lice feel free to download Treating Head Lice my 10 Steps & Shopping List!
©Jason Poquette and The Honest Apothecary. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jason Poquette and The Honest Apothecary with appropriate and specific links to the original content.
Last modified: April 17, 2023