Getting rid of headlice
March 4, 2005 5:23 AM   Subscribe

Genuine Itching Mites...

My daughter must have brought some headlice back with her from daycare, and now my wife and I have got them too. There is plenty of medical advice available on the internet, but I would be glad to have some personal experience from people who have been in this predicament. How did you get rid of your lice, and how long did it take?

Supplementary questions:

1. There are a lot of anti-lice products on sale -- special combs, shampoos, etc. Do any of them actually work?

2. I have seen some websites warning against the use of insecticide shampoos. Is there any evidence that these are actually dangerous to health?

3. There seems to be some dispute over whether you can pick up lice from clothing, bedclothes, etc, or whether they are only transmitted by direct hair-to-hair contact. Any thoughts? -- i.e. do I have to wash the bedclothes every day?

4. Any advice on dealing with the social stigma of having headlice? Should I warn other parents, or would it be wiser to say nothing? I don't want to start a panic.

All advice gratefully received.
posted by verstegan to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I used Nix (noted as the #1 lice remover), though some lice may show resistance. The dead lice eggs may reside in your daughter's hairline for a few extra days - invest in a fine-tooth comb and try to get them out that way. (And it may hurt her a little bit when you do that, since the eggs are attached around individual hairs, so try to be gentle!)

In most cases, head lice comes from the outdoors (walking through woods, things like that), though it might be wise to do a washing of sheets/hats/other things like that, just to be on the safe side - and so that other members of the family don't get it.
posted by itchie at 5:54 AM on March 4, 2005

The most effective way to eliminate head lice is to shave your head. Period. Other options include nit-picking and nasty poisons to which many strains of head-lice are showing an immunity. Check here for more info.
posted by plinth at 5:56 AM on March 4, 2005

Welcome to a huge, but treatable, PITA. Direct from a pre-school administrator:

1. Rid, the most well-known anti-lice shampoo, is very effective. Everyone infected needs to use it as directed, and then have a very thorough comb-out with a fine-toothed anti-nit comb.

2. There's a lot of alarmist material about every topical chemical. How much exposure will you really get from one dosing? My source doubts the efficacy of any "natural" remedy, but acknowledges that an especially attentive comb-through and several thorough reguaalr shampooings might get rid of the head infestation. But you may very well wish you'd given everyone the Rid when you've repeated the process a few times.

3. You absolutely need to wash all bedding and possibly infected hats and tops in hot water. An anti-lice additive is available and is thought to be of some value, but some people don't use it and generally have satisfactory results.

4. The responsible thing to do is warn others who may have been exposed. The lice didn't spontaneously generate on your daughter-- if she has them, other folks have them too and the infections will only be stopped when everyone is looking for them. Once the infestation is noticable, the carrier has probably already passed some lice to others. Remember that this is a problem that all schools deal with, nearly every year. Reasonable people know that lice are just another childhood phenomenon. Also remember (and remind people if necessary) that lice actually prefer clean heads because oil and dirt make it hard for them to breathe.

Your child's educators will just say "Oh, another lice problem" and will have seen lice on the heads of many clean, well-kept, healthy kids in the past. Some stay-at-home mom who wants to worry about something besides her azaleas may decide that you're the worst parents ever, but she'll be laughed out of her book club if she dares voice it. In six weeks, no one remember the lice nor that your daughter was the first infection.

Good luck!
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:11 AM on March 4, 2005

Definitely warn other parents about the lice. Otherwise kids tend to pass them backwards and forwards (I'm sure that she picked them up from another kid at day care, who probably got them from a school-age sibling) - everyone needs to be on the alert so that all the kids can be treated if need be. Remember that lice actually love clean hair, so it's no reflection on your cleanliness or hygiene. Kids tend to play with each other's hair, swap hats and scarves, which is how they can pick them up so easily.

A friend was having constant problems with head lice, which her 7-year-old daughter kept picking up at school. What worked for her? Mayonnaise. Honestly. I'm not sure if your child is old enough to do this, but if she is: coat her hair in mayo (any supermarket brand will do), wrap it in cling wrap and leave for at least two hours if you can. Then you'll need to comb her hair with a nit comb. The mayo apparently suffocates the beasts (this is why just washing with water/shampoo doesn't work - they can hold their breath!) However, the nits will still cling to the hair shaft so you need to comb carefully to remove the dead nits.

After this, the child's hair was so silky and gorgeous, I put mayo on my own (louse-free) hair to see if I got the same effect. Yes. A wonderful cheap alternative to a commerical deep conditioner!

I couldn't tell you about the sheet-washing. My sister and I picked up head lice several times as children, and I think that my parents just washed our pillowcases. It's a normal part of growing up IMHO, and nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about - just an annoyance more than anything.

I hope this helps - lice are one of those things that everyone has a different opinion on. So there you have mine.
posted by different at 6:17 AM on March 4, 2005

Don't wash anything until you're treating. If you find more lice and have to treat again, wash/dry again.

My mother did not wash everything. She washed sheets and pillowcases and recently worn clothing, but everything else just went dry into the dryer on a high heat setting. This included stuffed animals.

I had a particularly nasty case--lice even in my eyebrows and eyelashes, so it took two cycles of treatment to rid myself and the house of it. We used Nit the first time and Rid the second.
posted by xyzzy at 6:38 AM on March 4, 2005

Lice suck. Nit works, but is pretty caustic stuff, so you don't want to use it very much, especially on a child's head. Thus, you'll want to be very very thorough the first time. By thorough I mean, was everything, twice; hand inspect every inch of her head for eggs and use that tiny, maddening little comb to get rid of each and every one. Another thing about the eggs, if they're still anchored to the hair, it means you didn't get good coverage with the shampoo. Good luck.
posted by maniactown at 7:24 AM on March 4, 2005

I sympathize. I caught lice from kids in the church nursery back in October. I don't think I had hair-to-hair contact, so the little critters must have crawled onto me when I was playing with the kids.

What I did (in order):
Washed my hair with Rid.
Combed and combed my hair with a fine-toothed comb.
Soaked my hair in a pan of warm water & tea tree oil. (Someone told me that it might help. It soothed the itching, anyway.)
Washed all bedding and clothes in hot water. (There's no point in doing this until you've used the shampoo. I did it when I first treated & then after the second shampooing.)
Vacuumed the mattress.
Sprayed pillows & car seat with lice spray. (Probably overkill, but it came in the kit I bought at Target.)
Re-washed my hair with Rid several days later, like the box said. (I hadn't had any itching after the first shampoo, but wanted to be sure to kill any lice that might have just hatched.)

Stuffed animals can be put in tightly-sealed plastic garbage bags for 2 weeks. That should kill any lice without the danger of melting her favorite bear's eyes in the dryer.

And YES to telling people. If I'd known lice was running through the nursery kids, I would have treated myself a lot sooner. Instead, I suffered for a week or two with what I thought was an allergic reaction to a new shampoo I'd just bought. Then I saw one on my pillow in the morning and figured out what was going on.
posted by belladonna at 7:54 AM on March 4, 2005

We discovered our two both had nits on Xmas Eve, which meant that we didn't have to worry about telling other parents at school, but we did tell everyone the children were going to come into contact with over the school holidays.

We decided to go the non-chemical route because of a general dislike of putting insecticide like Malathion all over their heads, possibly several times; more importantly my daughter also had an eye problem at the time and I wasn't about to risk anything getting into her eye and making it worse.

So, every two days, we washed their hair (used shampoo with tea tree oil in, as that is supposed to help, no idea if it did) and then slathered it in conditioner. Tons of the stuff. And then spent half an hour combing through it with a nit comb. Then rinse.

After about three or four days, there were few big ones. After a week, there few little ones. After two weeks or so of this, they were all gone, and haven't returned. And the children had very shiny hair.

It was a chore at times, but there was a certain visceral satisfaction about getting them out with a comb and smushing them all over a paper towel.

We just washed pillowcases etc as normal.
posted by reynir at 8:24 AM on March 4, 2005

We've had head lice twice. The best thing I can tell you is to go to Harvard School of Public Health web page on head lice. It took every old wives' tale (including mayonnaise) and studied it's efficacy. Their opinion was if you was everything in your house, you will have a clean house, but it will probably not affect the lice problem. Lice cannot live for long off a person's body. I even e-mailed Harvard with a question and got an answer back.
The only solution seems to be to daily thoroughly nit-pick everyone's head for a couple of weeks (the life cycle of the lice). That was the only thing that did the trick for us after every other treatment known to man!
posted by davenportmom at 8:39 AM on March 4, 2005

Don't worry about social stigma. Your child's peer group is too young to get into stigmatization, and lice are such a common public-school event that it's pretty much a non-issue: no one can know who brought the little buggers into the school, and everyone knows that they get passed on too easily. It's irritating, but whatchagonnado?
posted by five fresh fish at 9:26 AM on March 4, 2005

There's a lot of good advice, and information about the possible health risks of lice-killing lotions, at this site - Natural lice control: Bug-Busting -

I can personally vouch for this method, as we used it whem my little one was, well, littler.
It's worth remembering this, though: lice can't jump. They are transmitted by close head to head contact only. As they adher their eggs to the lower part of a hair, the nits (eggs) never come off onto hats. I wish I had a penny for every treatment we used when Ella was little - thankfully, around the age of 10, the incidents diminished, and we haven't had an infestation for many years. It's an occupational hazard of being a kid (and parent!), it seems.

Natural head lice control
Safe and effective alternatives are available, which do not rely on the application of dangerous chemicals to the scalp. The non-profit organisation Community Hygiene Concern (CHC) has developed a programme based on systematic removal of hatched lice, to break the life cycle.
CHC claims that seven year-olds can be successfully taught to detect hatched lice by wet combing(9). They call this 'bug busting' (see Bug Busting Kit box). A child then needs help to follow through and clear the lice. The principle of the system is based on three simple facts:

* thoroughly wet lice slow down and become easy to hook off with a fine toothcomb
* removing lice before they mature prevents them from mating and spreading
* co-ordinated action by a community using this method helps prevent re-infestation.

Ordinary shampooing and conditioning are used to wet the hair and any lice thoroughly (this procedure ensures that the lice, which tend to stay near the scalp, are bathed in moisture). Preparatory wide-tooth combing with conditioner untangles and straightens the hair. Then systematic fine tooth combing from the hair roots to the tips over the entire head removes hatched lice. Insects caught in the comb are wiped or rinsed off before the next stroke to avoid combing them back on again. The conditioner is rinsed off and the head combed again while the hair is still wet. The process is repeated on a four-day cycle over two weeks. At the end of this period all life stages of the lice should have been removed, and no unhatched eggs should remain in the hair.

posted by dash_slot- at 10:42 AM on March 4, 2005

On preview.. dash_slot's info is good, i'll reiterate that the combing out of the nits is the key.

What davenport mom said... THOROUGHLY nit-pick (comb and remove) everyone's head for a couple of weeks. Thorough, meaning every hair, every day. It's a daunting task, but unless you do it, you'll likely be stuck in a cycle of re-infestation in 10 days or so.

You can "bag" all the things that can't be washed or put in the dryer. Lice really do die in a couple of days without their host, but they lay eggs like crazy in desperation, so i've always recommended 2 weeks for the stuffed toys, etc that can't go into the dryer for 10 minutes (hot dryer, btw).

Anything that smothers will work.. mayonnaise is recommended by some Public health offices for those who ae worried by, or highly affected by the insectcides. There are insecticide sprays that you can use on your car upholstery (don't forget the car).

Comb the nits off/out. Every day. All of them.

And yes, notify everyone and their dog, too. There's no more shame to catching headlice than there is to catching a virus.
posted by reflecked at 10:47 AM on March 4, 2005

The Virtual Childrens Hospital has sensible advice and info, if you want to go down the conventional treatment route (they are wary of lice on clothing, so if you want to be thorough, this might be a good routine):

# Head lice is contagious.
# Lice cannot jump or fly. Pets can't spread lice.
# Lice are passed from person to person by sharing clothes, brushes, pillows, toys, etc.
# To kill the lice, wash these items in hot water, put them in a hot dryer for 30 minutes, or take them to the dry cleaners.
# Soak combs and barrettes in hot water for 15 minutes.
# Seal items that can't be washed in plastic bags for 10-14 days. Lice will die after about one week off the scalp.
# Vacuum floors and furniture.
# Do not spray your house with chemicals. It can be dangerous to your health.
# Tell your child's school or day care if your child has lice. Other children should be checked and treated if needed.

They also say this:

Do not soak your child's hair with gasoline or kerosene. It is not safe.

Sensible advice, whatever the situation, I'd say!
posted by dash_slot- at 10:52 AM on March 4, 2005

Virtual Childrens Hospital
posted by dash_slot- at 10:57 AM on March 4, 2005

Final post:

'There is no need to wash or specially treat clothing or bedding that has been in contact with head lice. They need warmth to survive and within hours of leaving their host they dry out and become unable to reproduce.'

re Bug-Busting:

This is currently the treatment recommended by the English Department of Health. It can be very effective, but is not yet supported by published scientific evidence.

The conditioner causes the louse to lose its grip on the slippery hair, and also probably blocks the breathing apparatus (spiracle). This treatment has the benefit of not exposing the person to unnecessary chemicals, and reduces the likelihood of the lice becoming resistant to medications. Clearly, conditioner can be as effective as mayo!
posted by dash_slot- at 11:11 AM on March 4, 2005

Permethrin shampoo and the measures described above works fine.

Keep the shampoo well away from pregnant women, though. It's not good for baby.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:50 AM on March 4, 2005

I had the kerosene treatment growing up. I don't know about safety, but man, it sure smells! Did the trick though.
posted by web-goddess at 2:47 PM on March 4, 2005

Response by poster: Many thanks to all of you for responding so generously with information and advice. Special thanks to dash_slot for some very detailed and helpful comments.

After several days of obsessive washing and combing, we seem to have the problem under control. We are still finding a few lice, but the numbers have been steadily decreasing. My main concern is that, while combing is very effective in removing the lice, it doesn't seem to be so effective in removing the eggs. This comb claims to be able to reach the parts that other fine toothcombs cannot reach, but I will wait to see if the problem recurs before shelling out £10.99 on a comb.

We told the manager of the daycare centre, who took the news quite calmly, and left it to her to decide whether to post a notice informing other parents. So far she hasn't done so, which surprises me slightly, but maybe she is waiting to see if any other cases are reported. Fortunately the other parents we know are thoroughly sensible and intelligent people who are unlikely to panic about headlice.
posted by verstegan at 5:32 AM on March 7, 2005

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