How to Treat Lice – Simple, Practical Advice
I got my first introduction to lice when my oldest entered kindergarten. I never had lice as a kid so was blissfully ignorant about what a pain in the bum it is to have lice. She didn’t even itch, but one day we were standing in Target and I happened to look down and saw a bug run across her part. My heart sank. Her beautiful hair was nearly waist long and very, very thick. I knew in my gut that it would be a giant pain to rid our household of this pest.
I was so embarrassed that my kid had lice that I didn’t even think to grab supplies at Target. I rushed her home and ran to the drugstore and bought the standard chemical-laden shampoo for her head. At that point – I didn’t care what was in the bottle I held as long as it killed the lice. I applied the shampoo to both her and her sister just in case. And I literally washed every piece of her and her sister’s clothing, bedding, stuffed animals, etc. You name it – I washed it. And then I spent about six hours nit-picking her that first night. By the end of the night – we were both exhausted – she was crying and upset. Nightmare central!
I continued nit-picking her every night for six more nights – and then I treated her again according to the shampoo directions. And nit-picked her again for six more nights…and I count myself lucky that we didn’t have chemical-resistant lice that first time around (although we did experience those a few years later).
Now I can safely say I hugely overreacted. I looked online for advice – but found each website had advice that was just a little bit different. Some folks said to wash everything, vacuum everything, spray anti-lice spray on everything. Others said to use mayo, olive oil, Cetaphil, shower caps, blow drying, neem oil, tea tree oil – the list went on and on. I even had a hard time determining if the lice could be spread to our dogs or not (it can’t!)
All these years later – and many outbreaks later (treating both my kids and friends and neighbors) – I finally feel like I have the most painless method for lice treatment down pat.
So I’d like to offer my practical, tried-and-true advice and best practices on how to effectively treat lice without losing your mind. Ready?
Lice come in three life stages. Nits (or eggs), nymphs (sort of like the kids – but they are incapable of laying nits) and lice (the grown-ups who do the nit-laying). Lice CAN’T fly or jump. They must walk onto your child. This is why lice are spread through sharing things that touch the head (hats, headbands, seats, headphones, hoodies, pillows). Lice need to stay warm and drink your blood. They do not survive more than about 24 hours off of their human host.
Lice do not carry disease. They are simply a nuisance unless you happen to have an allergy and then they can cause allergic reactions which can be very uncomfortable. Some people will itch with lice and some will not at all. Lice like really warm dark places. They will run from light. You can often find evidence of an infestation behind the ears and at the neckline before you spot them elsewhere on the head.
Nits are teeny tiny. They are tear drop shaped and range from white to darker brown on the hair shaft. They do not blow off. It is dandruff or skin flakes if you can blow it off. Nits are stuck like glue. They are waterproof also…you can’t wash them out in the shower or bath (same for nymphs and adult lice).
Step 1 – Do Not Freak Out
This is perhaps the most important piece of advice I can offer you. Nearly every family with school-age children will experience lice at some point in their lives. It is NO BIG DEAL. Let me say that again – NO BIG DEAL. Yes, it’s extra work for a short time. Yes, you might get psychomatic lice (like I do every single time and itch for no good reason). But you will be okay.
Lice do not spread disease. They’re merely a pain. They also prefer clean hair so it doesn’t mean you or your kids are dirty – in fact it means the opposite.
Okay – deep breath. Let’s get rid of the bugs.
Step 2 – Treat Everyone’s Heads
If you’ve got boys and don’t mind shaved heads – do yourself a favor and shave their head. It’s a foolproof solution.
However, I’ve got girls so shaving wasn’t an option. I’ve tried chemical shampoos, essential oil based shampoos, olive oil, etc. The best and easiest method I’ve found (that seems to work every time) is a salt water based spray. You could make this up yourself (half table salt and half water in a spray bottle) or you could just buy it like I do. My favorite brand is LiceFreee. It comes in a handy little spray bottle with a pretty decent lice comb included (it’s metal instead of the cheap little plastic ones you find in other brands). This product also comes in a gel (which I’ve tried too!) The gel is about as easy to use as the spray…but more expensive. It’s totally a personal preference thing.
The commercial solution smells almost like licorice. It’s not lovely, but it’s not terrible either. My kids tolerate it fairly well.
I keep multiple bottles of the spray in my bathroom so I have it ready to go if I spot a louse or some nits on my girls. It’s also come in handy when I need to get a friend started on treatment when they call for help.
The trick to the saltwater solution is to thoroughly soak the hair all the way to the roots and let it dry naturally. Wrap a towel around the shoulders and then spray the hair down until very wet. Then find something fun to do while the hair dries out. Play a game, watch a movie, read a book – your choice. Wash it out the next morning with your normal shampoo. You can comb it out with the metal nit comb that comes with the package. Or not…totally up to you.
I recommend treating the whole family since it’s easy and inexpensive. The beauty of this solution is that the saltwater desiccates the nymphs (the teenage bugs), lice (the adult bugs), and the nits. You will not need to nit-pick unless you want to (which I admit I usually do).
You shouldn’t need to do it more than once. But feel free to do the spray every single day if you want. It feels like you went for a dip in the ocean and dries with a sort of salty feeling. It’s not terrible at all.
Step 3 – Treat the Environment
Now you need to handle the environment (house, car, etc). Do not wash every item of clothing in your house. I beg you. I’ve done it and it made no difference. It just caused more work for me. Wash pillowcases, towels, and clothing that touched your child’s head in the last 72 hours with hot water and dry on high heat. High heat is your friend. If you don’t want to wash stuff – just stick it in the dryer on high heat for about 40 minutes. That should be good enough. If you can’t heat it – bag it up and let it sit for a week.
Don’t forget about hats and hair accessories (rubber bands, hairbows, headbands, etc). For hairbrushes and combs – wash them in the dishwasher on the “sanitize” cycle (more high heat!)
Now vacuum your floor and your kid’s carseat.
It’s enough – I swear.
Step 4 – Be Alert
Check your kid’s hair weekly especially during the early months of the school year. For some reason – that’s high lice season. Then again – don’t do what I’ve done a time or two and let my guard down only to discover lice at the end of the school year. Weekly checks are just a good idea year-round.
Once we’ve had an active bout of lice – we go on what we call “Lice Lockdown”. Hair stays in ponytails at school. Backpacks should be kept separate at school if possible (tuck those jackets inside your backpack when you get to school). And everyone in the household does not share hairbrushes or other hair accessories. I usually keep each kids’ stuff in a zip top baggie with their name on it just to keep it easy in the bathroom.
I usually make up a detangler spray we affectionately call “Bug Away Spray”. Take a large spray bottle, fill it nearly to the top with hot water. Then add a few squirts of your favorite hair conditioner and about 25 drops of tea tree oil or clove oil or a combination of both (just don’t add too much essential oil – that stuff is potent) and shake it up. The spray works great on tangly hair, helps to keep lice away, and smells like pumpkin pie. It’s a win win.
You can use these tips all year long and maybe you won’t ever get lice! But despite my best efforts – we usually get it every few years. Girls are just so darn huggy! 🙂
If you’re worried you won’t know what to look for – simply Google “lice images”. You’ll find many pictures – and like I said – if it blows away it’s not a nit. I usually don’t see adult lice unless they are dead. They’re remarkably good at hiding from light.
If you decide to nit-pick just for peace of mind – it’s easy to do. Divide the hair into four sections. Take three of the sections and keep them out of the way with a hair clip. Take the fourth section and using a fine tooth comb – comb through a small section at a time. Do this in natural sunlight if possible. The nits are fairly easy to spot (although easier with thinner or blonder hair). You can use a lice comb or your fingernail to get the nit off the hair. Some folks say that apple cider vinegar helps to loosen up the nits, but I’ve not seen consistent results with it. I use a white paper towel to place the nits on and then once all four sections of hair are combed through I carefully fold it up, place it into a zip top plastic bag and deposit it into the trash.
Good luck and may your hair be lice free!