Head lice are insidious little insects that commonly make their way around schools, daycares and other groups of children. Lice do not fly or jump, but spread through person-to-person contact with infested people or their clothing. Because of the regular close contact of children in group situations, head lice infestations tend to be more common among children than adults. It is possible to contract lice from the environment habited by a person with lice, like a schoolroom or house, but according to my research this is less likely than say sharing a hat, or a putting heads together. There are different levels of aggression in treating the environment – see below.
While the best "treatment" for head lice is prevention (see my article in related links below on "Preventing Head Lice"), there are a number of natural and traditional remedies to treat infestations if they do occur. In order to treat head lice, both the live lice, as well as the nits (louse eggs) need to be killed and removed from the hair. If you have received a notice that your child has nits or live lice, treatment will be necessary before they will be able to return to school. Some schools have "no nit policies" and some send home or exclude children only for evidence of live lice. For more information on this, see my article in related links below on "Head Lice -- Should Schools Have No-Nit Policies?" (coming soon).
Traditional Remedies for Head Lice
Traditional treatment for lice involves application of a chemical insecticide to the scalp and hair to kill live lice and nits, followed by manual removal of nits stuck to hair shafts (for details, see my article "Treating Head Lice – Traditional Remedies" linked below). Such treatments are thought to be highly effective; however, do have some health concerns, especially when used on children. For this reason, some families prefer to treat using a more natural approach.
Natural or Non-Toxic Head Lice Treatments
There are two basic approaches to natural treatment – enzymes or smothering. The smother method involves covering the hair and scalp for multiple hours (differs by agent) and basically blocking the respiration of lice and nits to kill them. Smothering agents range from home remedies mayonnaise to egg whites or products can be purchased, some including homeopathic ingredients, enzymes or other non-toxic remedies. Scientific testing on smothering seems to indicate inconsistent results, but anecdotally, many families swear by the results.
Enzyme treatments are very similar to traditional methods, but replace the chemical pesticide with natural and non-toxic ingredients that kill the lice and nits. There are many products available. This method that I have used successfully is from the Fairy Tales Hair Care line product (shown below). Enzyme products are generally untested by conventional science, and rely on testimonials and word-of-mouth. They are sometimes harder to find locally, or more expensive, but can be purchased online at prices comparable to traditional methods to keep on hand.
Removing Nits from Hair
No matter what form of treatment you use to kill the head lice, manual and careful removal of nits is absolutely essential to eliminating head lice. Most head lice treatments come with a plastic (or other type of) lice removal comb. If they have short teeth, it is my opinion that they are not really sufficient to do the job, and will make the nit removal take much longer. What made this process more bearable for us is using a really high-quality metal removal comb – the Nit Terminator Comb (shown below).
Treating the Environment
To truly get rid of head lice, it involves more than just treating the person with the known infestation. Aggressive treatment also involves treating all members of the household as well as cleaning/treating the household environment to avoid re-infestation. Manufacturers of traditional lice removal systems often also offer lice killing household sprays. Again, some parents are concerned about the toxicity of insecticides in such sprays. For more information, see my article "Head Lice – Treating the Household" (coming soon).
Head lice is an annoying, but not actually dangerous to health if kept under control (if not, there is a risk of secondary infection due to scratching). Both natural and traditional treatments are available depending on your level of concern about children and chemical exposure. In general, I have not found natural treatments to be overall more expensive than traditional treatments. However, they are harder to find, and may involve planning or ordering ahead of time to have around in case they become necessary.
• Harvard School of Public Health Head Lice Information
• American Academy of Pediatrics Head Lice Information
• CDC Fact Sheet on Head Lice (pdf format)
We used the Lice Be Gone mousse product from Fairy Tales Hair Care with excellent success when our daughter brought home lice from school. I ordered some online right before she started Kindergarten knowing our time would eventually come, as purchasing locally is significantly more expensive, if available at all. We also use their preventative spray, which I now LOVE to recommend, because after our first episode, my daughter had a play date with a friend which at one point involved laying down head-to-head in her bed. The *next day* the friend's mother had lice in her hair – I was prepared for the worst, but my daughter never got it. After that, I definitely became "sold" on this line. Fairy Tales Hair Care Products on Amazon
If you are treating lice, we found the cheap plastic comb that comes with treatments to be inadequate. We like the Nit Terminator Metal Comb, seen here:
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