Head liceOpen pop-up dialog box
Head lice are tiny insects that feed on blood from the human scalp. An infestation of head lice most often affects children and usually results from the direct transfer of lice from the hair of one person to the hair of another.
A head-lice infestation isn’t a sign of poor personal hygiene or an unclean living environment. Head lice don’t carry bacterial or viral infectious diseases.
Over-the-counter and prescription medications are available to treat head lice. Follow treatment instructions carefully to rid your scalp and hair of lice and their eggs.
A number of home or natural remedies are also used to treat head-lice infestations, but there is little to no clinical evidence of their effectiveness.
Common signs and symptoms of a lice infestation can include:
- Itching. The most common symptom of a lice infestation is itching on the scalp, neck and ears. This is an allergic reaction to louse bites. When a person has a lice infestation for the first time, itching may not occur for four to six weeks after infestation.
- Lice on scalp. Lice may be visible but are difficult to spot because they’re small, avoid light and move quickly.
- Lice eggs (nits) on hair shafts. Nits stick to hair shafts. Incubating nits may be difficult to see because they’re very tiny. They’re easiest to spot around the ears and the hairline of the neck. Empty nits may be easier to spot because they’re lighter in color and further from the scalp. However, the presence of nits doesn’t necessarily indicate an active infestation.
- Sores on the scalp, neck and shoulders. Scratching can lead to small, red bumps that may sometimes get infected with bacteria.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor before you begin treatment if you suspect that you or your child has a head-lice infestation. Studies show that many children have been treated for head lice with over-the-counter medications or home remedies when they don’t have an active head-lice infestation.
Things often mistaken for nits include:
- Residue from hair products
- Bead of dead hair tissue on a hair shaft (hair cast)
- Scabs, dirt or other debris
- Other small insects found in the hair
A head louse is a tan or grayish insect about the size of a strawberry seed. It feeds on human blood from a person’s scalp. The female louse produces a sticky substance that firmly attaches each egg to the base of a hair shaft no more than 3/16 inch (5 millimeters) from the scalp.
The louse life cycle
A louse goes through three stages:
- Eggs that hatch after six to nine days.
- Nymphs, immature forms of the louse that become mature adults after nine to 12 days.
- Adult lice, which can live for three to four weeks. The female louse lays six to 10 eggs a day.
Head lice crawl, but they can’t jump or fly. Transmission of a head louse from one person to another is often by direct head-to-head contact, often within a family or among children who have close contact at school or play.
Indirect transmission is uncommon, but lice may spread from one person to another by items such as:
- Hats and scarves
- Brushes and combs
- Hair accessories
- Pillows, towels and upholstery
Indirect transfer could also occur among items of clothing stored together. For example, hats or scarves hung on the same hook or stored in the same school locker could serve as vehicles for transmitting lice.
Household pets, such as dogs and cats, don’t play a role in spreading head lice.
Because head lice are spread primarily by direct head-to-head contact, the risk of transmission is greatest among younger people who play or go to school together. In the United States, cases of head lice most often occur in children in preschool through elementary school.
If your child scratches an itchy scalp from a head-lice infestation, it is possible for the skin to break and develop an infection.
It’s difficult to prevent the spread of head lice among children in child care facilities and schools because there is so much close contact.
The chance of indirect transmission from personal items is slight. However, to help prevent a head-lice infestation, you may instruct your child to:
- Hang garments on a separate hook from other children’s garments
- Avoid sharing combs, brushes, hats and scarves
- Not lie on beds, couches or pillows that have been in contact with a person infested by head lice
A worry about head-lice transmission is not considered a good reason to avoid sharing protective headgear for sports and bicycling when sharing is necessary.
How to get rid of head lice (Home Remedies)
When dealing with lice, you should keep a number of things in mind.
While they can spread, they don’t carry disease and they don’t mean that you or your kids are in any way “unclean.”
There are times when all you need to do is use a lice comb to comb out the nits, nymphs, and adult lice in your child’s hair.
If your child just got back from an overnight stay with friends and the parent in charge told you that one of the kids has lice, there is no need to panic. Chances are good that you’ve caught the problem early enough. You can simply comb out your child’s hair every morning and evening for three weeks.
You can combine the combing with some easy home treatments. Nearly all home remedies rely on some method to suffocate the lice. Using home remedies that work is probably preferable to putting harsh chemicals on your child’s head.
Read on to find out what home remedies to try as well as what to avoid.
Wet-combing is a traditional way of removing lice from the hair. According to the British Medical Journal, the method has benefits such as making the lice more visible, distinguishing them from dandruff, and being affordable.
Wet-combing involves spraying conditioner on wet strands of hair, using a fine-toothed comb, and, in some cases, a magnifying glass to clearly examine each strand of hair and remove the individual lice.
Although the wet-combing method can be effective, it’s also time-consuming and requires some patience to complete. If you try it, allow ample time and consider some entertainment options beforehand for your child.
Smother the lice
Here are some of the natural “suffocating” or “smothering” treatments that work reliably well. They work best if you follow the instructions.
It’s important to note that some experts believe that it’s actually the combing that does the work — the “suffocating” treatments just stun the lice and make them slower and easier to catch on the comb.
To use this technique, first coat the hair with olive or almond oil. (Vaseline and mayonnaise are not recommended — they are unnecessarily messy, and both can be difficult to wash out.) Some people suggest coating the comb instead of the hair — re-applying the oil as needed. You may have to try both methods to see which works best for you.
Separate the hair into small sections as you work, and use a hair clip to move them out of the way. Do this under a good light so you can see what you’re doing. Rinse out the comb often under running hot water.
Once you’ve completely combed your child’s hair, wash their hair with their regular shampoo, rinse, and repeat. Then dry their hair.
Make sure you wash all the towels you used and clean out the lice comb. Soak the comb in a 10 percent bleach solution or 2 percent Lysol solution for 30 minutes, and then rinse it very well. As an alternative, you can soak the comb in vinegar for 30 minutes or boil it in water for 10 minutes.
Follow this procedure every day for a week. Then, for the next two weeks, check by combing every night to make sure the lice are gone.
Treat the lice with essential oils
A number of essential oils have been shown to be effective — along with combing — in eliminating head lice.
Essential oils are never ingested. In fact, some are toxic. Before you use any essential oil, always dilute them with a carrier oil and put a small drop of the diluted mixture on the back of your child’s hand. If there is no reaction, the essential oil should be safe to use.
There isn’t enough research to be sure that essential oils are safe for children.
Though pretty rare, some kids have allergic reactions to these oils — usually tea tree oil. If your child is allergic to one, move on to the next oil on the list. The oils that have shown effectiveness are:
- tea tree oil
- lavender oil
- neem oil
- clove oil
- eucalyptus oil
- aniseed oil
- cinnamon leaf oil
- red thyme oil
- peppermint oil
- nutmeg oil
Mix 2 ounces of olive oil with 15 to 20 drops of the essential oil. Apply this mixture to the scalp using cotton balls. Leave it on the scalp and hair overnight — at least 12 hours. Comb out and shampoo, rinse, and repeat.
An alternative approach is to mix the 15 to 20 drops of essential oil in 4 ounces of rubbing alcohol. Place the mixture in a spray bottle and saturate the hair with it. Again, leave it on for at least 12 hours. Once the lice have been eliminated, the alcohol spray can be used as a preventive treatment.
Remember combing out the hair is absolutely essential to remove the lice and their eggs.
Clean around the house
If you or your child has lice, you may be tempted to go on a whirlwind cleaning spree around the house, but you can rest assured that a full house decontamination often isn’t necessary with lice.
Lice won’t live far from the scalp, and nits usually won’t hatch at room temperature. So save that deep cleaning around the house for another time.
But you may want to clean or wash anything that has been in close contact with the person who has lice, such as hats, pillowcases, brushes, or combs. Put beloved stuffed animals and other non-washable items into a plastic bag.
Wash any lice-infested item in hot water that is at least 130°F (54°C), put it in a hot dryer for 15 minutes or more, or placing the item in an air-tight plastic bag and leaving it for two weeks to kill the lice and any nits.
You can also vacuum floors and furniture where lice may have fallen.
Avoid these products and methods
Here are the things the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you DON’T do when getting rid of lice:
- Don’t use extra amounts of any recommended or prescribed dose of lice medication to try to treat the lice “faster.” Excessive dosages can be dangerous and may cause severe damage.
- Avoid getting any medication for lice in the eyes. If contact with the eyes occurs, be sure to flush them out.
- Don’t repeat the same lice treatment more than two or three times. If you repeat a medication treatment too many times, you or your child may build a resistance to the medication, or an alternative may have to be used.
- Don’t use more than one head lice medication at the same time. Using more than one treatment at a time won’t work to kill the lice faster, and it can cause more harm than good.
- Don’t fumigate the house or living area where an individual who has head lice has been. Fumigation isn’t necessary to kill lice and may be toxic to others and to pets.
- Avoid using conditioner. Conditioner acts as a barrier for lice medication and stops it from sticking properly to the hair shaft.
- Don’t use lindane shampoo as a first-line treatment for children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) no longer recommends it, as overuse and misuse can be toxic to the brain or parts of the nervous system. The AAP recommends that Lindane only be used when other treatments have failed.
References: Mayo Clinic,Healthline