The Case of the Invisible Lice
May 11, 2013 5:03 PM   Subscribe

What in the world could be causing itchy scalp and neck for three members of the same family... but isn't lice?

Oh god please help.

About a month ago, I got my hair dyed. Some week and a half later, I noticed my scalp had become crazy itchy, and I was getting red bumps and sores behind my ears and on my neck. Ah-hah! I thought, I have become allergic to my hair dye at last! (Lot of allergies in this house.)

I mentioned it to my dermatologist while I was there for, uh, cancer treatment, and got a cortisone solution to put on my scalp twice a day. Great! Except... my two daughters started having crazy ichy scalps and necks too... so not the hair dye, huh?

Here are the facts as we know them:

* Itchy scalp, itchy neck, in general itchy places where hair touches your skin. I at least have bumps as well, especially around the hairline in back.

* I have checked the girls for lice a few times, no dice. The school nurse has also checked them at least twice and come up empty. Lice is periodically reported in the school but they've never come home before now.

* We share combs and brushes. We do not normally use the same haircare products.

* Except! One new conditioner, which we all used for about two weeks, which has since been replaced by a conditioner we had all used off and on with no irritation for years before now. The new conditioner and the itching did occur at about the same time. And yet the itching continues now that it is gone...

* In general the girls are conditioner-only; I've been using a new shampoo recently but they're not allowed to touch it.

* My husband is having no similar itching problem. But he doesn't use any of the same stuff we do, not even the combs.

* We all feel better when our heads are wet in the shower, but the itching returns quickly.

* The cortisone treatment helped me at first, but doesn't help consistently. Eg. I've used it three times in the past day and a half and now the itching is worse than ever.

I know I should go back to the dermatologist and drag them to the pediatrician, just my doctoring limit has been overwhelmed by dealing with my (superficial, non-life-threatening, easily scraped away) skin cancer. I will be going back in a couple of day, but meanwhile...

What the heck could be troubling us? And how can we stop the itching? Should I treat us all for lice on general principal? Is there some super hypoallergenic or anti-vermin or anti-fungal shampoo and/or conditioner we should be trying? (Allergies to contend with include peanut, dairy, gluten, lavender.) Extra bonus points for solutions that don't strip the very expensive salon color from my hair. *scratch, scratch*
posted by Andrhia to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
How are you checking for lice? Are you using an ultra violet light? Are you using a nit comb?

I like the "lice free" brand, though I'm about to try the People's Pharmacy trick of amber Listerine.

My kids had checks and checks and checks with no lice until one day I happened to see one randomly on the kid head.

When I went to get my hair cut and colored two weeks ago, I was assured I was fine, but a run through with the electric lice comb put that to lie.
posted by tilde at 5:17 PM on May 11, 2013

How's your shower water temperature? If it's too hot or you're in there too long (which would make sense considering wetting your scalps seems to help temporarily) that could be drying your skin, preventing it from recovering after whatever happened to it (the new conditioner does sound suspect.)
posted by asperity at 5:19 PM on May 11, 2013

Sorry, forgot the link for lice free. Basically I believe its the alcohol that does them in; that's the main ingredient in Lice Free. It was used the first time we were infested; a "lice spa" combed the kid out and I've taken over duty since then.
posted by tilde at 5:19 PM on May 11, 2013

Just throwing this out there, but are you and your daughters susceptible to itchy skin in general? We've had times where our water softener has broken or run out of salt, and it creates a hardness to the water can creates a lot of itching, especially on the scalp. For me it was more pronounced because I have thicker hair.
posted by SpacemanStix at 5:21 PM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, like asperity noted, the itching could be continuing because the irritation from the new conditioner led you to scratch your scalps, and now, from all the washing and scratching and new products, you've dried out and irritated your scalps to the point where even in the absence of the original irritant, you're still itchy. Have you tried anything like rubbing a known-good lotion into your scalp at night, to soothe your dry, scratched-up skin?
posted by limeonaire at 5:23 PM on May 11, 2013

One of the signs of dandruff is a itchy scalp, and it doesn't always come with lots of dead skin flakes. Dandruff is thought to be a complex inflammatory response to a common fungus on the scalp that disrupts the normal process of shedding skin cells. Changing conditioners might have made conditions on your scalps ripe for dandruff to start, though from what I remember I don't think dandruff can be transmitted. I'd suggest trying a nice gentle anti dandruff shampoo to see if that makes a difference.
posted by wwax at 5:41 PM on May 11, 2013

Consider scabies, bedbugs.
posted by gramcracker at 5:45 PM on May 11, 2013

I would suggest throwing away your brushes and buying new ones (one brush for each person - and don't share).
posted by littlesq at 5:56 PM on May 11, 2013

I break out in hives from those herbal essences products. Takes a couple weeks to clear up, especially if you don't get it all off your pillow cases, hats, hair clips etc.
posted by fshgrl at 6:00 PM on May 11, 2013

Once you start checking for lice and thinking about lice, it can make you crazy itchy just from thinking about it. My kid brother had lice when I was visiting last Christmas and I was sure I had got them. Despite checking and rechecking and using lice shampoo just in case, I didn't find any, but my head stayed itchy for about six weeks afterwards. I think now that it was partly psychosomatic, and partly irritation from the messing about looking for lice.
posted by lollusc at 6:01 PM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

It could be some kind of fungal/yeast problem. One quick solution that certainly won't hurt anything is switching your bodywash to Selsun Blue shampoo for a few weeks to see if it helps. Not the best smelling stuff on the planet, but it definitely cleared up my friend's tinea versicolor. Good luck!
posted by doreur at 6:55 PM on May 11, 2013

Did you get a new car recently or new throw pillows for the couch? Perhaps it is a fabric that you are all touching with your heads? I cannot tolerate synthetics. Perhaps your family has this issue as well.
It is possible that your hair dye rubbed off on a throw pillow and is bothering the entire family.

Throw out all hair care products and buy new ones. Wash all pillows and pillow cases on the same day. I don't think it could be your water as the itch is only around your scalp area. I would go to the dermatologist and ask to be checked for scalp folliculitis, which is contagious.
posted by myselfasme at 7:03 PM on May 11, 2013

Try washing your hair and the kids hair over a stopped up sink or bath tub. I had checked and checked my daughter's thick blond hair after similar symptoms, and it wasn't until I did this that we finally saw the adult lice in the water.
posted by tamitang at 7:16 PM on May 11, 2013

I've heard a rule of thumb that cortisone will make yeast-based infections/ringworm itch REALLY bad ... might be something to rule out.
posted by MeiraV at 7:31 PM on May 11, 2013

Nthing the quadruple-checking for lice. I had three doctors check me for lice last year, one GP and two dermatologists, and none of them found anything until one day when a bug fell onto my keyboard.
posted by Melismata at 7:42 PM on May 11, 2013

You should NEVER share combs and brushes with other people, even members of your family. You can spread so many fungal infections that way, and it's definitely one of the vectors for lice transmission, too.

I would try a few things:
-- a tea tree oil based shampoo and conditioner for your whole family
-- dandruff shampoo (but not conditioner as this sometimes has other irritating stuff in it that will exacerbate any itchy spots for days at a time)
-- having anyone in the family not using actual shampoo use a clarifying shampoo to get rid of any buildup they have from only using conditioner
-- never using Herbal Essences products again (their conditioners dry out the scalp of everyone I know)
-- ask a dermatologist to check for ringworm and lice
-- boiling your pillowcases and all of your brushes and combs in hot water
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:31 PM on May 11, 2013

When did you stop using the new conditioner? I've had omg-itchy allergic reactions to things like that before, and just not using it anymore wasn't enough to fix things--it took a while (a couple weeks, if memory serves) for things to get back to normal. There are lots of good suggestions above, obviously, but if it's only been a few days or a week, you might want to brace yourself for the possibility that it'll be a while longer before things are as they should be.
posted by MeghanC at 11:35 PM on May 11, 2013

I have used that exact same conditioner, and I had the exact same reaction. Itchy scalp and red sometimes painful bumps along my hairline. Also itchiness and bumps wherever my hair touched my neck and shoulders. It was awful and took two or three weeks of lukewarm washing with baby shampoo to go away. I would totally blame the conditioner.
posted by Orb at 6:32 AM on May 12, 2013

It sounds like you all are going through a stressful time. Is it possible that your daughters are having sympathy itching?
posted by Edna Million at 10:31 AM on May 12, 2013

I get itchy from pollen for a few weeks each spring.
posted by obol at 12:09 PM on May 12, 2013

If this were in fact lice, would it be causing itching even on our upper backs, where the hair touches? My little one has scabs from scratching all down her neck and between her shoulder blades now. Sob! It really does itch all the places the hair touches.

Likewise, if this were bedbugs, scabies, or a reaction to something like throw pillows, wouldn't we be having the itches on our arms and/or legs as well?

I did wash my hair over a stopped sink last night and found no bugs in the water when I was done. But I had no idea lice could be very difficult to spot! I am quite freaked out!

It's been... I think a week and a half since we stopped using the conditioner? Though I only finally tossed out the suspect bottle yesterday.
posted by Andrhia at 7:25 PM on May 12, 2013

You washed you hair with what?

& yes, on upper backs. Kiddo had hair just about to her waste & the lice spa took many adults out out her hair. Bites all over her back & neck in hair reach area.
posted by tilde at 3:46 AM on May 13, 2013

One of the sure-fire ways I have checked for lice is this:
Get a nit comb, a clean white cloth (like a handkerchief or paper towel, not a terrycloth towel), and a generous amount of conditioner.

Put the person with the suspected case of lice into the shower, wet their head, and apply conditioner. First brush through their hair so that it's not tangled. If their hair is very thick, comb through it with a comb before moving on to the next step to remove any chance of tangles.

Take the nit comb and start combing through the hair. After each pass, wipe the comb onto the white cloth. Lice are brown in color and show up well against the white background. However, they are small enough to disappear into terrycloth, which is why you shouldn't use a rougher textured towel.

This may take several passes! Focus on the back of the head, near the nape of the neck and behind the ears, which is where I generally find the culprits. If I don't find them after 5 minutes of combing, I call it good.

I have never once found _nits_ in my kids' extremely thick hair, but this method is a sure-fire way I've detected active _lice_.

If you do find them, I've got a fantastic lice cure:

Shampoo once with a lice shampoo. Rinse thoroughly. After getting out of the bath, wring excess water out of hair and apply Cetaphil to hair. All over. Coat your hair in it, brushing it through to make sure everything is Cetaphiled. Blow it dry.

Keep the Cetaphil on your head every day for a week. After the week is up, apply lice shampoo once more. You can do another week of Cetaphil if you feel like maybe some nits might have hatched or you just want to be damned sure.

The Cetaphil suffocates the little monsters. It doesn't do anything to the nits, which is why you have to keep doing it throughout the life cycle until the nits have all hatched and you can smother all the hatchlings.

Hair with blown-dry Cetaphil is slightly lank, but not totally awful. And if the whole family does this, it means that you don't have to go nuts treating your whole house for lice. Please also keep in mind *ahem* other body hair that might be colonized.
posted by Addlepated at 12:09 PM on May 13, 2013

OH MY GOD we finally confirmed lice. Last night we stopped by a pharmacy to pick up a Robi-Comb and see if THAT could catch anything. They were out, but I bought some typical metal lice combs instead, figuring it was worth a shot, and had at my kids' hair. And finally found bugs! Ugh.

First thing this morning I went to a different pharmacy and stocked up, then used the Robi-Comb to comb out and kill as many lice as possible, Nixed each kid (and me), and then combed with the metal comb, wiping onto a white tissue after every stroke, until the comb was coming away clean for a while.

I'm planning on combing everyone through with that electric comb once or twice a day for the next couple of weeks. That thing is AMAZING. And if it looks like we have a new breeding generation in a week or so, I'll re-Nix. Though frankly given how frequently we get lice notices home from school I'm betting they all have a resistance to the chemicals.

posted by Andrhia at 11:08 AM on May 14, 2013

The nice thing about the Cetaphil treatment is that it's mechanical. not chemical. It smothers them. So you don't have to worry about chemical resistance, you just need to make sure to coat all the hair/scalp with it and Bob's your uncle. You can also leave it there for a couple of days, washing it and reapplying every other day or so if you like. It worked for us, anyway. I'm glad you got an answer!
posted by Addlepated at 11:18 AM on May 14, 2013

Yep, I have super thick hair and Robi Comb finally got me cleaned out. I bought, but never used NIX - the alcohol-based bug rinses work okay for me and mine. I seriously think the non-NIX is good; they can't get resistant to alcohol.
posted by tilde at 12:53 PM on May 14, 2013

The RobiComb is sale-priced at a number of Walgreens locations right now - $10 off (I've seen it at a couple, but not all, which is WEIRD).

It's good for spot checking clean (non product-d) hair; it can get easily gunked up and it's harder to clean than a manual comb. I've started using a toothbrush and wiping well (I have oily hair and it gets the comb gunked up).

Here's basically our routine:


1. Comb out hair with no product (gels, sprays, conditioner) in it.
2. Use RobiComb to spot check at nape of neck, around ears.
3. Repeat unless infested.
4. Spray hair with hair spray at start of day/put hair in tail if long enough.


1. Spray with a pellucid (I use the LiceFreee which is alcohol and salt, though Walgreens seems to have a generic that is mostly salt water) and let sit 15 min.
2. Comb out thoroughly, with standard comb for knots, then lice comb, rinsing the manual lice comb in water or dunking in drugstore rubbing alcohol.
3. Shampoo hair with a rosemary/teatree/lavendar shampoo and conditioner ... whatever OTC standard brand or a "lice free" version.
4. Repeat for a day or two.
5. Spot check LOOKING instructions for up to five or six days before treating the hair like FOUND again.


Wash in hot water or soak in alcohol. If not possible, deep freeze or a round in a dryer (knot them in a pillow case or put them in a lingerie bag) with a load of towels. Anything that can't be put in the washer or dryer put in a big plastic back and left alone a couple of weeks.


If using an alcohol/salt spray on the lice and the kid isn't going to chew hair or get it in their eyes, don't shampoo it out the first day (this advice is actually on my bottle of LF).

I keep hearing a flat hot iron will nuke the eggs but maybe I'm doing it wrong.

The last time we went through this I wasn't careful about the spot checks and the kid got reinfested, probably from school. This time I skipped the flat iron; got a bunch of adults out on day 1, not much on day 2, but on day 5/6 or so got a lot of juveniles.

I spent a lot of time reading boxes and advice. They generally say "you can't treat yourself" but I have crazy thick hair and I've been pretty good. I do a ton with the RobiComb, and since I can stand the smell I tried the Listerine (amber) trick this time around. Holy crap that stuff smells like gasoline. I only found a couple adults on me this time around the lice infestation, none so far after two days of Listerine rinse/soaks (I had to rinse it out after 15 min - I couldn't STAND the smell).

If ... IF there is a next time, I won't cut the kids' hair because of it (I happened to this time to handle a hairball problem, making delousing easier was a bonus).
posted by tilde at 7:12 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

It has been nine days since my last treatment. I have zero mystery itching (just normal baseline scalp itches). I am tentatively calling myself cured, though I dunno when I'll feel up to using my big poofy fabric-covered headphones again. The kids were both done in one week, with the Robi-Comb and Nix one-two punch, but I had to do a second Nixing, presumably due to the difficulty of curing yourself of lice.

This has been harrowing, and I would probably still be suffering if it were not for all of you. Thank you so much!
posted by Andrhia at 5:58 AM on May 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older Come on baby, let's stop the twist   |   What's this corset a knock-off of? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.