Adventures in Lice

by Angèle Alain

Adventures in head lice? We’ve had a few.

In fact, we’ve had three episodes in four years; usually in the spring. I’m not a health professional but needless to say, I’ve learned a lot. First of all...

head-touching selfies. A great way to pick up lice!!

head-touching selfies. A great way to pick up lice!!

It’s nobody’s fault. Setting blame is natural, but it isn’t helpful.  It's better to stay calm, clean up and let it go. There’s no way of knowing for sure where they came from. Besides, the first person to find them is doing the rest of us a favour. I cringe when I think of how I reacted the first time, when my friend and neighbour told me her daughter had lice. I thought of the time spent at her house and although my nasty language wasn’t directed at her, it wasn’t warranted. It happens to all of us. If it hasn’t happened to you, it will.   

Know what you are looking for

You might think an itchy head is the best sign of head lice, but it’s tricky. You can spend days or even weeks looking for nits that aren’t there (yet.) The best sign is the little red spots on the scalp where lice bite. If you find those, lice are living in your hair.

Nits are little translucent beige eggs: big enough to see and small enough to miss, especially in blond hair.  They are each attached to a single hair less than one inch from the scalp. Unlike dandruff, they don’t move if you try to brush them off. 

If the kids have them, you likely have them 

Even if your head is almost shaved, do the treatment. It only takes minutes and your friends and family will appreciate it. My husband’s head itches just thinking about lice, so we all go through it for good measure.

Get to know the little buggers 

Lice are little brown bugs with long bodies and lots of legs. They are the size of a young fruit fly and are big enough to see. They don’t jump, they crawl. The only way to catch them is through contact with something or someone who has them.

  • They only live up to two days outside of hair. That’s why it’s important to check beds and pillows before bedtime so as not recontaminate your head.
  • Nits are not viable unless they are close to the scalp.
  • Nits aren’t killed by most commercial treatments.
  • It’s possible to suffocate lice.  
  • Heat and extreme cold kills them, but heat is quicker.  
  • Lice can live for hours under water but it’s almost impossible to catch them in a pool.

Treatments usually kill lice, not nits 

Most commercial lice products kill lice but not nits. That said, it you want to invest in the good stuff, try Nyda (Dimeticone) - it's been shown to be quite effective. But beware, it's pricey at $40 a bottle (one bottle will cover two or three heads depending on hair length.) 

If you want to save money and do the hard work, a handy little comb that comes with most treatments will remove dead lice and nits (the products act as a lubricant for the latter). However, nothing is more effective than sitting outdoors removing nits with your fingers. I’ve spent many days doing just that in the backyard. Call it quality time with your kids (although younger ones will probably need some kind of distraction to sit still!) It’s also very important to repeat the treatment after seven days as missed nits that hatch in between won’t start reproducing until then.

Regular conditioner works just as well 

It won’t kill lice but it slows them down long enough to comb them out along with nits. It’s a great trick. Here’s how I did it:

1) Spread conditioner throughout dry hair along the scalp. 
2) Comb through with a lice comb. Make sure to always comb at the root of the hair while using the same side of the comb -- so as to not put lice back in your head. 
3) Rinse comb with water, checking for lice every 2 or three comb throughs.  Since the lice are stunned, I run them down the drain (yes, you will see them). You might need a tweezer to pull them out of the comb. 
4) Rinse conditioner out and dry your hair with a clean towel. 

Another trick is to comb through your hair with the lice comb every time you wash it for a week or so.  

Natural remedies work, but they take time

During our last episode, a family member who’s a nurse mentioned that lice are becoming tolerant to commercial treatments, so natural remedies are a good alternative. This is also true if, like me, you don’t like putting pesticides on your kid’s head. 

Any suffocating product works such as mayonnaise, petroleum jelly and oil as long as you leave it in at least 8 hours. Overnight works well. 

This treatment is particularly effective:

1. soak hair with apple cider vinegar and let dry (this cleans the hair)
2. saturate hair with coconut oil, and wrap with towel or shower cap for 8 hours
3. heat head with hair dryer or sit in the sun to set oil
4. after oil has set, add shampoo to hair without water. Rub and mix in shampoo to break down the oil, and let sit for another 30 minutes.
5. Rince hair and repeat shampoo.

Extreme temperatures, garbage bags and a vacuum are your best tools

Isolate anything that’s been in contact with the head in the last week. Some say 48 hours, but I don’t take any chances. Since lice suffocate, put all cushions, quilts, hats, helmets or anything you can’t wash or put in the dryer in a garbage bag and seal it for at least three days. Some even say seven days. If you can’t wait, put it in the freezer for 24 hours. 

Anything you can wash should be heated in the dryer. You can also dry anything, such as pillows, without washing them.  Vacuum mattresses, couches, chairs and rugs.

Tell everyone

That’s right. Tell everyone you’ve been in contact with, even if it’s embarrassing. Tell your child's school, daycare, afterschool clubs, evening classes, sports clubs, friends, neighbours and family you saw in the last weeks, especially if they’ve been to your house. They might react badly, but they will thank you later.

Tea tree oil is lice’s enemy and therefore your friend

Tea tree oil repels lice so it’s great for prevention. After an episode, or when reading an email from school informing you of the presence of lice, you can put a few drops of tea tree oil behind your kids’ ears and on the hair every day for a couple of weeks. You can also add it to your regular shampoo and conditioner.   

Hope for the best

After you've done all you can do, it's best to relax and hope for the best!

Getting head lice isn’t fun, but it’s one of the many common adventures of parenthood. I’d never had them as a child but have had them twice as an adult; go figure. I blame head-touching selfies, and those aren’t going away anytime soon. I’ll just keep checking hair on a regular basis, and remind my kid to tell me when her head itches.