Dealing With Head Lice

Oh, fathers of the world. School is in, and that means everything that can be shared from child to child will be shared, and is very likely to make its way home to you.

Probably one of the most fearsome pests encountered during the school year is head lice. These pernicious little bugs itch like crazy and are notoriously difficult to get rid of. But not to worry: a little hard work and elbow grease can take you a long way in the fight. And even more importantly, you can actually prevent them from coming back!

About Head Lice

Head lice are insects that are tiny, very quick to procreate, and very hard to detect. In fact, most of the time you won’t even know about them until someone (usually at school or daycare) finds eggs in your kid’s hair; and eggs, of course, means adults are already present and getting it on.

Lice are parasitic, feeding on blood. But let’s get a couple of things straight: they’re not as bad as they’re made out to be. Compared to fleas and mosquitos, lice are relatively harmless (aside from the nuisance). They don’t spread disease, as they tend to live on one host at a time and never jump between species (so your pets are safe from them…our lice only like human flesh). They also don’t represent a lack of hygiene. In fact, they prefer clean hair.

Louse eggs, or nits, take 5-7 days to hatch, after which the juvenile adults go through a larval and pupal stage before becoming reproductive adults. The process from hatching to laying new eggs takes another 7-10 days. This is the best news of your life, because it means you have a week to eradicate any new adults before they become fertile enough to lay new eggs.

Kill Kill Kill

There are plenty of options when it comes to killing lice, and the first thing you’ll discover when your kid has lice is that literally everyone you have ever met (and quite a few people you haven’t met yet) is an expert in controlling lice. You will get more advice than you ever thought possible, and everyone’s way will be the right way. So let’s settle the score right now.

The first thing you have to do is kill the adults (lice, not advice-givers). This is to prevent any new eggs being laid. To do this, you can use a commercially-available insecticide shampoo, however lice have become resistant to these chemicals and you may only be able to kill of about 3% of the adults with this method (I personally like this shampoo because it makes combing easier, but that’s about it).

The Lice Squad, a company in Ontario, suggests a different protocol. While they do have specialised enzymes to make short work of this process, they also recommend coating the hair with olive oil, and covering that with a shower cap for about four hours. This method actually suffocates the adults, literally drowning them in the oil. For those that survive, they’ll be coated and trapped in the oil, making them easy to remove with a comb.

There are commercially-available combs as well, and the best ones (like this one provided by the Lice Squad) have teeth so close together you can barely see through them. After the oil soak, carefully comb through the hair about an inch at a time, wiping the comb on paper towel between passes. This not only pulls out dead or dying adults, but scrapes the nits off the hair shaft.

This process can take an hour or more if done correctly.

After the combing, wash the hair with tea tree oil shampoo, or add tea tree oil to your kid’s regular shampoo. This is one of the strongest lice repellents you can get, and it’s extremely effective at preventing re-infestations.

Once the hair is dry, you can pick through it very carefully, looking closely for any remaining nits. If you don’t find any, don’t be fooled…new eggs can be very difficult to spot, so any laid that day may be too small to see. Favourite locations for nits include the back near the neckline, behind the ears, and at the crown of the head, but be sure to search everywhere.

Meanwhile…

While all of that is going on, you need to make sure there are no adults or eggs around the house. That means bagging up all the pillows, bedding, stuffed toys and clothes–and not just in the kid’s room. Don’t forget hats, coats, sweaters…anything close to the neckline especially. This is a house-wide operation, because you don’t know where your kid’s head has been in contact during the past week. There are two options here:

1. tightly seal all these items in plastic bags and remove them to a safe distance (such as a garage) for three weeks. Any lice there will starve to death during this period, or

2. take everything down to the laundromat (where they have big industrial-sized dryers) and blast it in the dryer on high heat for at least 30 minutes.

I prefer the second method. Basically, after the first clean up is done I would take my kid’s pillow and bedding down to the laundromat every day for a 30-minute spin in the blast furnace.

Vacuum every carpet, piece of furniture, and mattress you have. This is a daily exercise, so get used to it. Empty the vacuum into a plastic bag, seal it, and chuck it out.

After vacuuming, I like to spray things down with tea tree oil diluted in water.

Every Day

Every day from the first day you should pick through your kid’s hair looking for nits. If there are any new ones you’ll see them in a couple of days. Just remember, any that you miss will eventually turn into adults.

Vacuum every day.

Every Other Day

Every second day, soak your kid’s hair with conditioner for 30 minutes, and comb through it again. The conditioner makes the combing easier while also gumming up the bugs’ escape plans.

On Days 5 and 10

Repeat the four-hour olive oil soak. Remember, newly-hatched adults won’t be reproductive for about 10 days, so this ensures any that might have escaped earlier treatments (or crawled back on from missed bedding or clothes) will get caught before they can lay eggs. This is a pre-emptive strike against the creation of a new generation.

Extra Tips

  • Add a tablespoon of white vinegar to shampoo and shake well before each shampoo. This prevents eggs, which are normally attached to the hair shaft with a strong glue-like substance, from sticking. This in turn makes the eggs either fall off, or slide right out with combing.
  • Wrap pillows and mattresses in plastic. This way, you only have to strip the sheets covering them and wash these each day, reducing your vacuuming duties to every couple of days. Any lice trapped in the mattress or pillow will more likely starve to death before getting through the plastic, and eggs won’t reattach to hair.
  • Tell your kid to stop being so huggy at school. Lice only crawl, they don’t fly or jump. So the only mode of transmission from person to person is direct contact, or direct contact with an affected surface (like a hat or pillow). Keeping a distance will help stem the tide.
  • Spray hair and clothes with tea trea oil in water, and keep using tea tree oil shampoo.
  • Step up your vacuuming during the winter months especially. With the windows closed, it’s very easy for dust and mites to be left lying around. The same is true of lice, so in the absence of good air circulation it pays to be aggressive with vacuuming.
  • Don’t freak out. In the old days, people with lice problems would resort to dangerous chemicals like DDT (which admittedly did the job). But they would also do crazy things like bleach the walls, which is completely unnecessary. Lice aren’t a virus, and they don’t crawl around on hard surfaces. They hid in softer areas like furniture and fabrics, so treat these with a good vacuuming and a bit of tea tree oil.

Prevention

It’s not actually possible to prevent an infestation of lice. But you can tip the odds in your favour by doing a few of these:

  • As mentioned, add some tea tree oil to shampoo, or even better to conditioner (since that’s the last thing that goes in the hair).
  • Reduce the number of times per week you shampoo your kid’s hair. Hair doesn’t need full shampooing every day, and lice do prefer an oil-free scalp and hair. The oils are actually there to protect you. For kids under 12, twice a week is plenty.
  • Also add a tablespoon of white vinegar to shampoo. This stops the eggs from sticking and slows down the progress of the infestation.
  • Vacuum the whole house at least twice a week.
  • Change bedding at least weekly, and be sure to vacuum the mattress and pillows. Running the pillows through the dryer for half an hour isn’t a bad idea, but could be done once a month after the lice have been dealt with initially.
  • Spray carpets, pillows, beds, clothes and hair with tea tree oil in water. Don’t be shy about this one (bonus: it’s also anti-bacterial and anti-fungal).