Head lice are parasitic wingless insects that live on people’s heads and feed on their blood. An adult louse is about the size of a sesame seed. The eggs, called nits, are even smaller – about the size of a knot in thread. Lice and nits are easiest to detect at the neckline and behind the ears.
Head lice are extremely contagious. Close contact or sharing personal belongings, such as hats or hairbrushes, puts people at risk. Children ages 3-11 and their families get head lice most often. Personal hygiene has nothing to do with getting head lice. Head lice do not spread disease.
There are three forms of lice, namely the nit, the nymph, and the adult louse.
- Nit: Nits are lice eggs. Nits are hard to see and are often confused with dandruff or hair-spray droplets. Nits are found firmly attached to the hair shaft. They are oval and usually yellow to white. Nits take about a week to hatch.
- Nymph: The nit hatches into a baby louse called a nymph. It looks like an adult head louse but is smaller. Nymphs mature into adults about seven days after hatching. To live, the nymph must feed on blood.
- Adult: The adult louse is about the size of a sesame seed, has six legs, and is tan to grayish-white in color. In people with dark hair, the adult louse looks darker. Females lay nits; they are usually larger than males. Adult lice can live up to 30 days on a person’s head. To live, adult lice need to feed on blood. If the louse falls off a person, it dies within two days.
How common are head lice?
Head lice are a common problem, particularly in school children aged 3-11 years.
It’s difficult to know exactly how common head lice are because the problem is often treated at home, with people only visiting their GP if treatment is unsuccessful.
Head lice infect hair on the head. Tiny eggs on the hair look like flakes of dandruff. However, instead of flaking off the scalp, they stay put.
Head lice can live up to 30 days on a human. Their eggs can live for more than 2 weeks.
Head lice spread easily, particularly among school children. Head lice are more common in close, overcrowded living conditions.
You can get head lice if you:
- Come in close contact with a person who has lice
- Touch the clothing or bedding of someone who has lice
- Share hats, towels, brushes, or combs of someone who has had lice
Having head lice causes intense itching, but does not lead to serious medical problems. Unlike body lice, head lice never carry or spread diseases.
Having head lice does NOT mean the person has poor hygiene or low social status.
- Tickling feeling in the hair
- Frequent itching
- Sores from scratching
- Irritability and difficulty sleeping. Head lice are most active in the dark.
Home Treatments for Head Lice
Mayonnaise contains a lot of oil, which has viscosity properties that will suffocate live head lice.
- Apply full-fat mayonnaise liberally over your scalp.
- Cover your hair with a shower cap or towel and leave it on for about eight hours or overnight.
- Shampoo and then comb any remaining lice out of your hair.
Repeat this daily for one week.
For another easy natural treatment for head lice, you will need baby oil, laundry detergent and some white vinegar. It is believed that baby oil, too, helps suffocate the head lice.
- Apply some baby oil on your hair and then comb your hair slowly so that lice start falling from your head.
- Then wash your hair with laundry detergent and hot water.
- Before bed, put some white vinegar on your hair and cover your head with a shower cap or towel. Leave it on overnight.
- In the morning, wash your hair with regular shampoo and then apply some conditioner.
Repeat this process for at least three to four days to get positive results.
Olive oil will effectively smother and kill head lice.
- Apply any type of olive oil to your hair generously before going to bed. Put a shower cap or towel on your head to keep the oil on your hair overnight. In the morning, comb out the tiny parasites and then wash your hair with some herbal shampoo containing tea tree oil.
- Another option is to mix one-half cup of olive oil with one-half cup of conditioner and add some liquid soap to it. Apply this solution onto your hair and leave it on for an hour. Then, rinse out your hair and apply conditioner. Comb your hair thoroughly to remove the dead lice. Repeat this remedy again after a week to get best results.
The strong fragrance of garlic can suffocate lice, ultimately killing them.
- Grind eight to 10 garlic cloves into a paste and mix in two to three teaspoons of lime juice. Apply the mixture thoroughly onto the scalp. Leave it on for a half an hour and then rinse the hair thoroughly with hot water.
- Alternatively, you can make a thick paste by combining fresh garlic juice with some cooking oil, lemon extract, green tea and some shampoo and conditioner. Coat the hair thoroughly with the paste and cover your scalp with a towel or shower cap for about a half an hour. Then wash your hair with your regular shampoo. Repeat this remedy on a weekly basis for one to two months.
Salt can also be used to eradicate head lice through desiccation.
- Mix one-quarter cup of salt and one-quarter cup of vinegar thoroughly.
- Gently spray the solution onto your hair so that it becomes slightly wet. Put on a shower cap and leave it for about two hours.
- Then wash and condition your hair.
Repeat this every three days to get positive results.
- Petroleum jelly can have a stifling effect on roaming lice.
- Apply a thick layer of petroleum jelly to the scalp before going to bed.
- Cover your head tightly with a shower cap or towel. Leave it on overnight.
- In the morning, use baby oil to remove the petroleum jelly.
- Comb your hair thoroughly to remove the lice.
Repeat this several nights in a row.
Tree Tea Oil
Tea tree essential oil is a natural insecticide, making it an effective treatment for head lice.
- Mix together one teaspoon of tea tree oil, one ounce of natural shampoo and three tablespoons of coconut or olive oil.
- Apply the solution gently throughout your hair and cover your head with a shower cap or towel. Leave your head covered for a half an hour and then rinse thoroughly with hot water.
- Finally, comb through your hair while it is still wet to remove the dead lice.
Note: Do not apply tea tree oil directly to the scalp.
Another safe and inexpensive method for eliminating head lice is white vinegar. White vinegar possesses acetic acid, which can destroy lice.
- Dilute white vinegar with an equal amount of water.
- Saturate the hair and scalp with the solution and then wrap a towel around the hair for about an hour or two.
- Next dip a comb in white vinegar and comb your hair, focusing on one small section of hair at a time.
You can also rinse your hair with white vinegar before and after shampooing.
The lubricating nature of coconut oil will stop lice from moving around freely, preventing it from multiplying.
- First, rinse your hair thoroughly with apple cider vinegar and allow it to dry.
- Then completely saturate the hair and scalp with coconut oil. Cover your head with a shower cap or towel and leave it on for six to eight hours or overnight.
- In the morning, comb your hair and then shampoo as usual.
Repeat this every day for a week to eradicate lice. To make the treatment more effective, add several drops of anise essential oil to the coconut oil prior to application.
Sesame Seed Oil
High in antibacterial, antifungal and natural insecticide properties, sesame seed oil can also be used to solve the problem of head lice.
- Mix together one-fourth cup of sesame seed oil, one-eighth cup of neem oil, one teaspoon of tea tree oil, one-half teaspoon of eucalyptus and rosemary essential oils, and about 10 drops of lavender essential oil.
- Rinse your hair with apple cider vinegar and allow it to dry.
- Apply the oil solution to the hair and scalp, cover with a shower cap or towel and leave it on overnight.
- In the morning, comb your hair thoroughly to remove the dead lice. Then shampoo normally.
Repeat this treatment daily for one or two weeks.
You need to be patient and diligent using these remedies to get rid of the problem of head lice completely.
When to see a doctor
Call your health care provider if:
- You still have symptoms after home treatment.
- You develop areas of red, tender skin, which could signal an infection.
Your dermatologist may recommend a product that you can buy without a prescription or a prescription medicine. Medicines that dermatologists prescribe to treat head lice include:
Malathion (mal-uh-THIGH-on) lotion: This is the generic name for a medicine that you will apply to the hair and scalp. It is approved to treat people ages 6 years of age and older. Malathion works by paralyzing and killing the lice and their eggs. This is very potent medicine, so you must take care to:
- Keep the medicine away from everyone’s eyes. If the medicine gets in someone’s eyes, flush the eyes right away with lots of water for several minutes.
- Leave cigarettes, cigars, and other things that you can smoke in another room. This medicine is very flammable, and smoking while using it can start a fire.
- Use the medicine ONLY in a room (or other space) free of open flames. Sources of open flames include a lighter, fireplace, stove, and camp fire.
- Keep all electrical appliances that produce heat turned off. Using this medicine while a blow dryer, iron, curling iron, or space heater is running nearby can start a fire.
- When used as directed, malathion is safe and effective. It can irritate the skin a bit as it works. Some people get dry hair or their skin can burn or sting. These side effects are temporary.
Benzyl alcohol lotion: This medicine is approved to treat head lice in people 6 months of age and older. It kills the lice but not their eggs, so retreatment is essential. The most common side effect is irritated skin.
Lindane shampoo: This medicine has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat head lice. This treatment is prescribed when other treatments do not work. It is essential to use lindane shampoo only as directed. It can be toxic when misused.
Treating Your Home for Head Lice
Whether you treat at home or see a dermatologist, you must also treat your home. To avoid another infestation, you should clean the following items:
Brushes and combs:
- Soak combs and brushes that a person with head lice used.
- Soak these in hot water, 130 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter, for 10 minutes.
Sheets, pillowcases, clothes, blankets, and towels:
- Place all items that touched the person’s head during the past 2 days in a washing machine and wash in hot water.
- Dry all machine-washed items in a hot dryer, using the hottest setting. Dry for at least 10 minutes.
Stuffed animals and pillows:
Place items that cannot be machine washed in a hot dryer and run the dryer on the hottest setting for 20 to 30 minutes.
Other personal items
Hair accessories, helmets, headphones, and other personal items can become infested with head lice. If a person with head lice has touched any of these items during the past 2 days, you can kill the lice on these objects by:
- Sealing the objects in plastic bags.
- Placing the plastic bags in the freezer overnight or keeping the bags sealed for 2 weeks.
Two weeks is the amount of time needed for adult lice and newly hatched lice to die when hot water, dryer heat, and freezing are impractical.
Furniture, carpets, and floors:
Vacuum these thoroughly to pick up any hairs the person with head lice has shed. Everyone normally loses about 50 to 100 hairs a day.
Keeping hair neatly tied up is preventive. A pony tail which is then plaited ensures no loose hairs for lice to get hold of. The hair may be washed and brushed between tying to ensure the hair is manageable. Lice combing may be repeated for an entire family once a week while children are at school age. To prevent infections during child “sleep overs” at friends, they can be given their own pillow case and told to ‘top and tail’ (i.e. lie in bed with their heads at opposite ends).