Victoria is a stay-at-home mom, author, educator, and blogger at Healthy at Home. She currently lives in Colorado with her family.
When children go back to school after a long summer away, unfortunately, head lice seems to be one of the prevalent issues that kids have to deal with right off the bat. There are many assumptions and negative stigmas when it comes to lice. Many people think that only people with poor personal hygiene get lice, or that it’s related to gender, race, or even family size, and none of this is true. Lice are not picky who they latch on to. As long as another human being is nearby, they are a possible home and meal.
Lice like to make themselves at home, get a good meal, lay their eggs all over the place and then move on to another home to wreak havoc and leave a huge mess behind. They are horrible renters, who never pay rent, and leave a huge mess behind for someone else to clean up. It’s always scary knowing that its coming and you and your family may be a victim in its path. When your child comes home with lice, it’s aggravating and annoying to treat, but it is treatable. In fact, the earlier you catch it, the quicker you can get rid of the issue and suffer fewer consequences.
There are even ways to prevent your child from getting it if you and every member of your family are very careful. If you are reading this article, it’s obviously a concern of yours. Let’s try and address some of your biggest questions and get you set up for success. We’ll start by defining what they are.
What Are Lice?
Head lice are extremely contagious insect parasites that are extremely annoying but are essentially harmless. Unlike body lice and other types of lice, this version of lice does not carry any diseases. Head lice must feed off another living body in order to survive. Their source of food is human blood, which they get from your scalp. Head lice can’t fly, aren’t airborne, and can’t live in water very long away from their host. In fact, they cling to hair strands for dear life when you bathe. They can crawl to a new host, but need some sort of direct contact in order to do so.
Head lice are transmitted from one host to another through close personal contact. This means head-to-head contact or contact with something that touches another infected person’s head and then yours or your child’s. Lice can’t live more than a day or so without nourishment though. Actual lice are brown insects the size of sesame seeds moving around on your head, or white spots that look like they’re cemented on to individual hairs. The white spots are lice eggs, and are called “nits.” They appear on hair shafts and are difficult to brush out of the hair.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 6 to 12 million children in the United States get head lice each year.
What Are the Symptoms?
Unfortunately, you or someone else could have lice for up to six weeks before experiencing any type of symptoms. This is why it is so incredibly important that you are doing regular hair checks on your children every morning and evening during outbreaks.
The most common symptom of any type of lice is itching. Lice bites cause an allergic reaction that causes this itchy feeling. However, you may not feel itchy right away, especially if it’s a light infestation. Some other symptoms are sores on your head from scratching the bites and white eggs or “nits” appearing in your hair.
They are easy to spot if you look closely at the scalp under a bright light and use a comb to go through your child’s hair. This is how they do lice checks in public schools and you can do them from home as well.
Where Does Lice Come From?
There is a short answer and a long answer to this question. The short answer is that if you or your child has lice, you got them from another person through head-to-head contact or by wearing something like a hat or using a brush that had live lice on it from someone else. Those are the only ways to get lice.
The long answer is that according to many research sources, head lice have been spreading among humans for thousands of years. Evidence of lice has been found on prehistoric mummies, and lice have been described in ancient Egyptian and Greek books of medicine.
There are lice infestations documented in every country on Earth at different times of the year. The long and the short is that lice simply travels around to different areas and different populations throughout the year. Maybe it’s the seasons that drive its journey or travel. Who knows. Really. However, it seems like every year, they somehow make it back to the United States just as school is starting to drive everyone crazy.
How Does Lice Spread?
First of all, let me make it clear that while they can spread, they do not carry disease and they do not mean that anyone is any way “unclean” if they get lice. Ironically, the United Kingdom's National Health Service and many American health agencies report that lice "prefer" clean hair because it's easier to attach eggs and to cling to the strands.
Lice are spread by direct contact with them. Like I’ve said already, they cannot fly, jump, or even walk. They can only crawl. They need direct head to head contact, or shared head touching items like hats, combs, bows, head scarves, or even jackets and scarves for those with long hair. Unfortunately, this includes pillows, sheets, and towels at home. They cannot survive more than a day or two without a human host for warmth and food, so they shared item would need to be shared within a day or so for the transfer from head to head to be possible.
While no one wants to get lice, and treatment is painfully time-consuming, lice are not actually physiologically harmful—just psychologically and socially. Please don’t let this perceived social stigma keep you from acting in your own household if you hear of an outbreak, or sharing the news with others if you have an outbreak in your own home. You’ll want to avoid playdates, family get-togethers, sleepovers, touching furniture and carpets in invested households, and even sharing beds, pillows, sheets, stuffed animals, clothes and towels in your own home, until the outbreak is over.
How Do I Prevent My Child From Getting Lice?
Although prevention is not fool-proof, you can certainly do your part to keep it from infesting your household. Just like when trying to avoid the flu, you and all of your family members have to take the appropriate precautions to avoid contracting them. The precautions are going to be hard both in and out of your home, but possible.
Check everyone’s hair and scalp on a regular basis with a comb and a bright light to look for small brown sesame seed-sized bugs and/or white little lice eggs or nits. Treat any you see immediately. Throughout lice season, don’t share personal belongings such as hairbrushes, hairclips, combs, and hats. Launder clothes, towels, pillows, blankets, and sheets regularly. In fact, it might be a good idea to assign everyone their own stuff, including towels, and their own spaces, and be very careful, until the infestation period is over.
At School or Daycare
It’s difficult to prevent the spread of lice in school or childcare settings. Not only can they not clean everything perfectly with so many children in and out all day long, with many parents dropping their kids off even when sick (or infected) simply because they cannot afford to keep them at home. But you can educate your children about what is happening and what their responsibilities are in order to keep from getting lice themselves.
Ask your child to avoid head-to-head contact with other kids during playtime. They shouldn't share spaces for clothing and hats, such as closets and lockers. I know it’s difficult but it may also help prevent the spread of lice to your children. The better prepared you can be, and the more precautions you can take for your family, the more likely that you can prevent the spread of lice to your family.
What Do I Do If My Child Gets Lice?
If you to do find lice on your child’s head, it’s not the end of the world. Besides immediately treating your child’s hair, you should also let anyone involved with your child within the last week know, so they can check themselves and their children as well. This means the child’s teacher(s), friends, playdates, other moms, family members, and whoever else you can think of. You should probably cancel any future playdates, dinners, etc. for the next week or so until this is cleared up.
Now to address your child. Of course you could consult your child’s doctor, or take him or her for an appointment. They will likely prescribe an antibiotic, and maybe a medicated cream or shampoo. However, using home remedies that work is definitely preferable to putting harsh chemicals on your child’s head. This isn’t a serious issue, and certainly doesn’t need a doctor’s appointment or antibiotics. This is something you can take care of on your own, especially if you have caught it early. Just know that nearly all home remedies rely on some method to suffocate the lice, or at least slow them down, so you can get rid of them easily. Let’s look at some of these simple methods to put your mind at ease.
Just Comb Out Their Hair
Especially when you have been diligently checking and catch the problem early, the solution is simple. All you may need to do is use a lice comb (or any regularly fine-toothed comb) to comb out the nits, nymphs, and adult lice in your child’s hair. Either before or after a good shower, separate your child’s hair into small sections, sit down under a bright light, like in the bathroom, and use the comb to get down to the roots and comb through all of their hair, taking special care to remove any lice and their babies.
Wash hair thoroughly and look again just to make sure you’ve got it all. Do this every morning and night until you don’t see them anymore. You will want to wash all of their bedclothes and towels in hot water for a few nights so there are no reinfection issues. Set hats, jackets, and those items that you can’t or don’t want to wash, outside for a few days. The lice can’t live away from humans that long and will die.
Use a Comb and Olive Oil
If you need a bit of help in removing the lice, this is a sure fire way to slow them down and/or kill all of them. Start by coating your child’s head, down to the scalp, in olive oil and then use a comb to work through all of your child’s hair. Rinse out the comb under hot water as you work making sure to get everything out of their hair. When finished, wash his or her hair with regular shampoo and conditioner like normal, rinse and repeat.
Be sure to wash all the towels and clothes that have been used in hot water. Between uses, soak the comb in vinegar for 30 minutes or in boiling 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.
Use a Comb and Coconut Oil
This is the same procedure as you read above with the olive oil. Melted coconut oil is a bit thicker and may be a bit more productive than the olive oil if that didn’t work or if the lice are a bit further along. Follow the exact same procedure. Boy, your kid’s head is going to smell delicious!
Apple Cider Vinegar
This is another handy dandy method that is actually very healthy for your child’s hair. Whether you caught the lice early and just want to make sure they're gone after combing them out, or if you want to just make sure that they are gone after working with the olive oil or coconut oil for a while, rinsing with apple cider vinegar is a great way to kill the lice.
The procedure is simply to shampoo like normal in the shower, and then pour apple cider vinegar straight over your child’s hair, making sure to get to the scalp. This is actually a fantastic conditioner and does not need to be rinsed out. The vinegar smell will disappear on its own. However, in the case of lice, I would let the vinegar sit on their head for 5-10 minutes and then rinse it out well. Afterwards, go through their hair with a comb just to make sure.
Use Essential Oils
If for some reason, nothing else has worked, or this is a more comfortable approach for you, certain essential oils have proven to eradicate lice. All you have to do is mix 20 drops of one of the recommended essential oils (rosemary, lemongrass, tea tree, citronella, or eucalyptus) with 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil and dab all over your little one’s scalp using a cotton ball. Leave on for at least 12 hours or overnight. Then comb out his or her hair in the morning, being careful to remove all lice with the comb, wash hair like normal, rinse and repeat every day until all lice are gone.
Some kids are allergic to one or more of these essential oils, especially tea tree oil, so be super careful to check their tolerance before spreading it all over their head for the night.
If you think you may have a lice infestation at home, vacuum the floor and furniture, and then cover furniture for two weeks with a plastic drop cloth. Any towels, sheets, blankets, hats, etc. can simply be left outside for 2-3 days instead of washing everything. Lice cannot survive for more than a day or two without the human body for warmth and a meal.
I hope that none of this scares you. It’s a much more insignificant problem than many will let on. The lice will not hurt your child in any way. They are just itchy and really annoying. If you get a lice infestation at your house, or just on your child, it is not a reflection on your parenting or your cleaning. It happens. They have been spread around for thousands of years and simply decide to come back to the United States for a visit around the beginning of school.
Just make sure to follow the precautions listed to try and prevent lice from coming to your home. But if it happens, they are easy to get rid of and you don’t need to spend a great deal of money or do anything drastic to rid your child’s head or your home of them. Just be calm and careful and comb/wash them out.
When I was a first-grade teacher, I would get lice at least once a year, and I have really long hair. I just laughed and got rid of them again. I sure hope that you are just reading this to be careful and not because you already have to deal with it, but I’m glad you have the tools, home remedies at that, that can help out just in case. Good luck!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2018 Victoria Van Ness
Victoria Van Ness (author) from Fountain, CO on September 07, 2018:
Famidoc on September 07, 2018:
Thanks for your article.
It's better use head lice comb to solve the problem.
We have solution as following,
Victoria Van Ness (author) from Fountain, CO on August 19, 2018:
I do too!
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on August 17, 2018:
I remember when I was a child we used to the the nit nurse come round the school to get rid of nits and lice.