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Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Head Lice

How to Treat Head Lice

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head lice

Adult Head Lice

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

No one wants to know anything about head lice. I'll be the first to tell you that over the course of writing this article, my head itched non-stop. What is it about discussing head lice that makes a person's head itch?

If you find yourself in a head lice situation, don't panic. It really is not the end of the world, and head lice can be effectively treated fairly quickly, with a little diligence.

How to Tell if it's Head Lice
The bad news is, getting head lice is pretty easy. The good news is, getting rid of it doesn't have to be the battle of a lifetime. Kids are especially susceptible to head lice during the winter months when heads and hats find themselves in close quarters at schools and day care centers. Kids come home with head lice and everyone can end up with it. You can also acquire head lice by simply coming in close contact with someone infested.

Mature head lice (see a photos here) are very small, kind of flesh, gray, or reddish colored bugs that live on the human scalp. They are often confused with dandruff or dry skin flakes. Want to know the difference between head lice and dandruff? Head lice move independently, and they are fast. Dandruff will only move if you flick it. While very small (about the size of a sesame seed), you can typically see them moving about with the naked eye, although their speed can make it difficult.

The adult lice can lay up to 10 eggs per day. The eggs, known as nits, are very small, oval shaped, and very light yellow or white in color. They too are often confused with dandruff or dry skin flakes. The difference? Nits will be stuck to the hair shaft, usually about a half-inch or so from the scalp.

Before you see head lice, you'll often feel them. Signs of head life include an itchy scalp and red spots around the ears and neck where the lice bite around the scalp. When left untreated, the bites can become infected, inflamed, or crusty and can lead to swollen lymph nodes in the neck. While this sounds horrible, the good news is that head lice do not spread disease or cause further illness.

Side note: Are you scratching your head as well right now?

If you can confirm that you're dealing with head lice. Don't panic. If you can't confirm that it's lice, you can always see your doctor to have the diagnosis confirmed. It's important to be sure that you actually have head lice, and not dry skin or dandruff, before treating for head lice.

Who Can Get Head Lice?
While rumor has it that head lice only attacks "dirty people", or is something that only "poor people" get, I can attest to the fact that head lice does not care about your social, economic, or hygienic status. Head lice can be a battle to get rid of and the treatments are not necessarily cheap, so sometimes a persons economic status can effect their ability to rid themselves of head lice.

Getting Rid of Head Lice
The issue with ridding yourself of head lice is closely related to the life cycle of the lice. As I mentioned, mature adult lice lay up to 10 nits per day. These nits produce a baby louse, known as a nymph, in 7 to 12 days. Within 2 weeks the nymphs mature and are ready for mating. As you can well imagine, it doesn't take long for two lice to become hundreds.

Getting rid of head lice is two fold. First, you have to kill all present adult lice, then you have to prevent the nits from maturing into reproducing adults. Removing the nits is really key in getting rid of head lice for good.

Step One: Kill the Adult Lice
To get rid of the adult lice there are a few methods that you can use. The go-to standard is a lice-treatment shampoo like Rid or Nix®, which is found over the counter at any drug store. I'm not a fan of these shampoos, frankly. They are very harsh, chemically based, pesticides that, while effective at killing lice, are harsh on the scalp. If you choose one of these lice treatment shampoos, please read the manufacturers directions and warnings. They typically require a second treatment in 7-10 days.

My favorite lice treatment is a product called Lice Good-Bye™ made by Fairy Tales (Compare Prices). While marketed for children it can be used for adults as well. This non-toxic, pesticide free formula is proven to kill lice and their eggs. It's safe for repeated applications, and is a much more natural choice when it comes to lice treatments. Again, read the manufacturers directions for proper use of the product.

Other products like Ulesfia® Lotion offer a safer lice elimination method, by suffocating the lice with a gel rather than killing them with a pesticide. Ulesfia® is available by prescription only.

Alternatively, you can get rid of adult life completely organically with ingredients from your kitchen. Mayonnaise is the go-to lice eliminator of choice, but other oil based products like olive oil and vegetable oil, or even petroleum jelly will work (I would save the petroleum jelly as a last resort as it's hard to shampoo out later). Apply one of the products generously to the hair and cover the head with a tight fitting shower cap. Then don't make any plans because you'll need to leave the head covered for two to eight hours. The longer you can let it sit, the better chance that you'll rid yourself of lice. These treatments work because the mayonnaise or oil make for a poor living environment and the lice will suffocate and die, plus you'll get a reconditioning treatment at the same time. Shampoo the treatment out, and repeat every 3-4 days for two weeks, to ensure that all lice and nymphs are eliminated.

Step Two: Eliminate the Nits
While getting rid of the adult lice is important, people often fall short when treating lice because they don't remove the nits. Eliminating nits is a time consuming job. To remove the nits, a nit comb is a must. I like the Terminator Comb made by Fairy Tales. A nit comb is a very small narrow tooth comb that scrapes the nits from the hair shaft.

After each treatment, or if you're using Lice Good-Bye® by Fairy Tales you'll use the comb during the treatment, you should comb through your hair with a nit comb using very small sections. Nits require the environment of the human head/scalp to survive, hatch, and ultimately become mature adults. Effectively getting rid of nits will ultimately rid you of lice.

I recommend using a nit comb daily, or two to three times per day if you can while treating head lice, and then for a few days after just to be sure.

Other Head Lice Tips

  • The biggest tip I can give you when treating head lice is to stay on top of it. It will not be eliminated in a day or two, but as long as you do not have live lice living on your head you are not at risk of spreading lice to other people.

  • Head lice should not require that you shave your head.

  • Head lice require a human head to thrive. They can not live for long outside of a host and they do not jump. Very close contact with an infected person is the primary way to acquire head lice.

  • It is not necessary to disinfect your entire home if someone in your home has head lice. Do wash hats and scarves, but your energy is better spent treating the infected person rather than cleaning carpets, furniture, or other items that can not host head lice.

  • Just because one person in your home has head lice, does not mean that the rest of the family will get it. I do not recommend treating head lice unless you have confirmed that the person is infested.

  • As a general rule, do not share combs, hats, scarves, pillows, hair ties, or other hair-related items with other people.

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