How to Get Rid of Head Lice | Almanac.com

How to Get Rid of Head Lice


Head Lice Treatment

Print Friendly and PDF
No content available.

Ever dealt with head lice? It's not an unusual problem in schools. I remember when my daughter was sent home with lice, along with half her class. The nurse gave us a fact sheet of instructions for treating the problem.

As directed, our entire family scrubbed our heads with a product containing lindane, a pesticide closely related to DDT. I spent the better part of three days combing nits (louse eggs, which adhere tightly to the hair shaft) from my daughter’s long hair, because of the school’s “no-nit” policy before allowing a child to return to school.

It was mid-January, and because we didn't have a clothes dryer to run everything through on the “hottest possible setting,” I bagged up my daughter’s stuffed animals, hats, bedding, towels, and pillows, tossed them into a snowbank, and left them out for several days, calculating that the  sub-zero nights would do in the adult lice, the nymphs, and the eggs.

It all worked out.

Basic Facts About Head Lice (Pediculus humanus capitis)

  • Lice are blood-sucking insects that inject saliva containing an anticoagulant to keep the blood from clotting while they feed. They complete their life cycle in about 30 days.The tan or gray adults grow to about ⅛ inch long,the size of a sesame seed.
  • They can’t jump, hop, fly, or even walk very well on a flat surface.
  • Lice spread from person to person by direct head-to-head contact. Because they play or sit close together, children are more likely to pick up lice. Rarely, adult lice may spread from an infected person’s comb, brush, hat, or pillow.
  • They don’t cause diseases.
  • It can take weeks for a louse infestation to show any symptoms; some people never do.
  • “Getting” lice has nothing to do with poor personal hygiene or household cleanliness. Lice affect all socioeconomic groups.
  • Dogs, cats, or other animals play no role in spreading head lice. Although some species of lice may infest companion or farm animals, these species don’t infect humans.
  • Head lice, body lice, and pubic lice are three different species; pubic lice generally attach to pubic hairs and spread through direct sexual contact.


Lice Treatment

Don’t treat for lice without a clear diagnosis from a knowledgeable health professional. An itchy scalp and presence of debris in the hair may have some other cause. Pregnant or nursing women should consult their doctors before using any pediculicide (louse-killing product).

Treat the person, not the surroundings. Spraying rugs, floors, walls, beds, furniture, and other household items won’t help control lice, and could cause harm.

Pediatricians no longer recommend lindane as a pediculicide. They also no longer recommend keeping healthy children out of school if they have lice or nits.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends using an over-the-counter, FDA-approved pediculicide as a first-line treatment. Follow package directions explicitly; follow up with your doctor if the treatment fails and you continue to find live lice.

Because the primary OTC/FDA-approved approved shampoos and lotions are insecticides (considered safe), lice in some areas may have developed resistance to one or another of them. Local doctors, nurses, and school officials should have this information.

Stubborn cases may require a prescription from a physician.

Ongoing research seeking natural, alternative products (see “Alternative Approaches”) that kill lice and their eggs have shown some promising early results, but public health experts warn that the products haven’t had adequate testing for both safety and effectiveness, so they should not be used to treat infants and children.

Folks who prefer not to use a standard pesticidal treatment can try the effective “wet-combing” (also called “manual removal”) method—running a fine-toothed comb through wet, well-conditioned hair.

A 2015 clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics had a section on manual removal that contains this nugget of wisdom, which gave me quite a chuckle. A novel definition of quality time with your young child.

There is an obvious benefit of the manual removal process that can allow a parent and child to have some close, extended time together while safely removing infestations and residual debris without using potentially toxic chemicals on the child or in the environment.

May you never have a louse-y day again!

Have dry, itchy scalp or skin? See our natural remedies for dry hair and skin.

About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

No content available.