Everything you need to know to get rid of head lice
Do's, don'ts, and why there's no reason to panic
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Head lice are a creepy, crawly, and aggressive nuisance that have plagued humans since the dawn of civilization. We aren’t exaggerating: mummified lice have been found on the scalps and in the combs of ancient Egyptians and Peruvians. Head lice are an equal-opportunity annoyance; if they were good enough for the pharaohs and kings they definitely won’t discriminate against your kid or their friends.
If your kid comes home with head lice, at least take comfort in the fact that they’re in good company. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 6 to 12 million lice infestations occur in the United States each year.
Should an infestation hit home for your family, here are tips on the best methods for head lice treatment and how to get rid of head lice if your kid brings some home.
First, here's what to know about head lice
Head lice don’t transmit diseases
Head lice, unlike body lice—which you are far less likely to contract—do not spread diseases. Sure, the relentless scratching could cause sores, but the only real threat lice pose is that they are really, really annoying.
Head lice don’t spread that easily
The only real disease lice spreads is fear and misinformation. Pam Skinner, a head lice expert and owner of Picky Pam at the Beach Lice Removal in Huntington Beach, Calidornia, and LiceFreeKids.com, says, “Lice don’t live for days in a carpet at preschool, and they aren’t going on jumping from one head to the next. Honestly, they are really easy to treat.”
Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security agrees. You are more likely to contract a cold, the flu, an ear infection, pink eye, or strep throat than lice. “Lice aren’t like fleas," he says. "They can’t jump from host to host, and they can’t fly.”
The most common way lice spread is from head-to-head contact. If a louse should happen to go rogue and land on, say, a yoga mat or a Spiderman costume at school, it would need the kind of acrobatic prowess to stick a perfect 10 to attach to a new person’s head.
While it’s recommended that kids not share hats, headbands, and headphones, lice are more often spread through rolling around in contact-play and huddling together to squeeze into group selfies.
Lice don't always itch
Itching is an allergic response to louse saliva that only about half of people have. That’s why it sometimes takes four to six weeks for people to even know they have head lice, and your child could go months without knowing they have lice at all.
Just keep an eye out for other symptoms—red bumps on the neck, scalp, and ears; and when you comb their hair, keep an eye out for tiny white sesame seeds stuck to the hair shaft or something that looks like immovable dandruff. What looks like dandruff could actually be nits.
Without a host, lice are toast
You are very unlikely to see a louse fall off someone’s head, but if you do, they are most likely ill or dying. Furthermore, a head louse without a strand of hair to grab onto can barely move around.
Lice can only survive with a human host. Any lice that might be on your couch, bedding, costumes, or Fido will die if they can’t find another human to climb onto within three to four hours, says Adalja.
Lice need human blood to survive, and they produce an anti-clotting enzyme in their saliva that allows them to feed. While lice can live up to 48 hours without a host, if it doesn’t find one within three hours it loses its ability to make that saliva that is crucial to their survival—so even if they do manage to find their way into your locks, they stand zero chance for survival.
Your dog won't spread them
While dogs and cats can get lice, lice have adapted to be species-specific and cannot go from one to the next. Head lice have adapted to live on the scalp of humans exclusively. That means that you can spare kitty a bath and your dog doesn’t need a trip to the groomer. Just focus on ridding your human family of the pest and let the animals alone.
Here's how to get rid of head lice
1. Put your clippers down
According to Skinner, one of the worst things you can do is buzz your child’s hair in an attempt to get rid of head lice and nits.
A special fine-toothed comb is needed to remove lice, and Skinner says that if you cut the hair too short, it will make it impossible to treat head lice and remove the eggs.
Lice eggs, or “nits,” need to be within a quarter of an inch to the scalp in order to incubate and survive. They are glued to the hair shaft by a cement-like substance and are very hard to remove without a special comb. When a nymph (baby louse) is hatched, it must immediately have the warmth and food source of a human head to survive.
It's Skinner's advice that you put the clippers down and give the comb—or the lice removing specialist—something to work with. If you get too clipper happy, you're just going to have those head lice crawling around in a perfect length of hair for survival, but hair too short for treatment.
2. Wash with a lice-repelling shampoo
For easy and immediate head lice treatment, Skinner recommends using a good lice-prevention shampoo to deter adult lice from camping out on the scalp and laying more eggs. It sounds simple, but it can be one of your best tools to get rid of head lice.
Oils such as rosemary, eucalyptus, and lemongrass are purported to deter lice and are a commonly used head lice treatment; Skinner says a rosemary mint shampoo can help as a step in lice removal treatment—plus, it smells nice.
3. Do a quick clean
It’s just a myth that you’ll need to sanitize your house and throw out your carpets if you find head lice on your child or yourself. Still, who wouldn’t want to give the house a good cleaning—just to be safe.
For peace of mind, you can wash and dry your bedding and towels on hot, give your house a good vacuuming, and take a lint roller to couches and cushions, but both Skinner and the entomologists at LiceWorld.com say there is no reason to get overzealous.
“I’d just machine wash my sheets on hot and throw my comforter in the dryer on hot and call it a day,” says Skinner. “People overestimate the lifespan of head lice and their ability to survive.”
She works with lice every day, folks. If a hot water wash is good enough for her, it's good enough for us.
4. Get a lice-removal comb
Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital, says “Combing works.” But, it takes patience and perseverance.
McCarthy also recommends checking everyone’s head in the family, adults included. “Not only does it get rid of both live lice and eggs, but it’s also completely nontoxic and without side effects. That can’t be said of any other treatment for head lice, ivermectin included.”
Buying your family a good lice comb before an infestation strikes is an offensive move that all of our experts recommend. They are inexpensive and they don't take up much space.
Because head lice don’t know that they should take a break for holidays and vacations, Skinner recommends you bring a lice comb on all family trips.
“You can pop into a store and find a good conditioner anywhere, but a good lice comb is hard to find. I take one with me on every trip and vacation,” says Skinner.
5. Know when to head back to school
True, this isn’t actually a step in treating head lice, but it is what comes next after the treatment is over and done with.
While some school policies may require a child with lice be sent home, there is growing research to suggest this doesn’t prevent the spread of lice and only contributes to social stigma. According to the CDC, “students diagnosed with live head lice do not need to be sent home early from school; they can go home at the end of the day, be treated, and return to class after appropriate treatment has begun.”
Skinner agrees, “For a mom treating at home, there is a 7- to 10-day window to hatching, but if you get your child professionally treated you can feel pretty confident that the lice are gone and they can go right back to school.”
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