Lice: Safe & Effective Ways to Treat

By Audrey Morris

At some point in his or her school career, your child will come home with the dreaded "lice exposure" letter. Lice have nothing to do with hygiene or cleanliness-anyone can get them. And, although lice are not dangerous and do not carry disease, they are definitely annoying. They can cause itching and inflammation as well as a secondary infection. They are also very contagious, so if one person in the home has lice, it won't be long before everyone does. The family cat and dog, however, don't get head lice.

With that said, here are some things to know about effectively ridding your children and your home of lice:

Lice Transmission

Lice are spread through close contact, and can survive off the human head for three days. The most common methods of transmission are:

  • Head-to-head contact

  • Sharing brushes, combs, headbands, etc.

  • Sharing hats or helmets

  • Sharing pillows, beanbags or towels

Lice Avoidance

There are some key things to teach your kids to help keep them lice-free:

  • Do not share brushes, combs, hats, helmets, or any kind of headband, clip or tie

  • Avoid head-to-head contact with others

  • Avoid cloth items that others have been laying on or leaning their head against

Lice Precautions at School

If your school does have a lice problem, there are other things you can do:

  • Keep long hair braided

  • Inspect your exposed child every day for nits (eggs) and live lice, whether they are scratching or not

  • Find out if classroom pillows, dress up clothes, and rugs are being treated

How to Treat Lice

If you find live lice or nits in your child's hair, you will need to treat your child. There are several different lice shampoos available-both over-the-counter and prescription. Medicated lice shampoos should not be used on children under age two, and require special precautions.

  • Follow the directions exactly-there are toxic insecticides in these medicated shampoos

  • Unlike regular shampoos, medicated lice shampoo has to be left on head for a few minutes before rinsing (again, follow directions for exact number of minutes to leave on)

  • After shampoo treatment, comb out the hair with a special lice comb (the plastic ones that come with the shampoo are not effective), repeat every 2-4 days

  • Repeat shampoo treatment in 7-10 days, continue combing until two weeks after last treatment

  • Talk to your doctor if the treatment does not work or your child has a secondary infection

  • Wash the infected child's bedding in hot water daily; wash any clothing, hats, stuffed animals, hair ties, combs, and brushes in hot water if possible. Any items that cannot be washed in hot water should be dry-cleaned or put into airtight plastic bag for two weeks

  • Vacuum couches, pillows, car seats, and carpets

Alternative Treatments for Lice

Many parents want to avoid the insecticides in lice shampoos. What else can you do to treat lice effectively?

Comb with a metal lice comb: Combing is a completely safe, effective, and traditional method of removing lice-it is also time consuming and must be done thoroughly. This is also the best treatment for children under age two. Wet combing is the most effective method, and a good quality metal lice comb must be used to find all nits. There are also businesses that provide lice-combing services, so you might contact one in your local area to check out their prices for these services.

Overnight treatments: While this may be a popular alternative treatment, it should be noted that lice are not suffocated by overnight applications of oil, mayonnaise, or petroleum jelly.

Tea tree oil: There are lice shampoos that use tea tree oil as the active ingredient. Their effectiveness is not fully known, so hair that has been treated with tea tree oil products should be diligently combed for nits as well. And, some people develop an allergic reaction to tea tree oil (which is quite strong), so use this oil and tea tree oil products with caution.

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