Brace yourself; whether or not you have lice, your head is about to start itching.
Maybe you've heard a rumor that lice are running amok at your school or - worse still - you've just received word that your kid is the one who's got them; either way, you need to know how to prevent or get rid of lice. Larger class sizes, fewer school nurses, and increasingly resistant strains of louse are making these itch-inducing parasites a much bigger part of our lives now than when we were kids. And boy can lice louse up your day.
First, let's address the biggest misconception: Lice are not a sign of poor hygiene! In fact, lice strongly prefer a clean head; dirty, oily hair (or hair with loads of products) is much harder to climb. The image of lice as a "dirty" thing has unfortunately been very helpful to the little parasites, since an infestation can spread much farther if parents fear sharing the awkward news. The sooner we all admit that all of our kids get lice, the sooner we can start nipping these nits in the bud. So step one - if your child has confirmed lice or nits, waste no time in calling school, classes, and recent playmates.
Old-school lice shampoos
We'd all like a quick fix; the first thing to go through parents' minds when we get the dreaded call from the school nurse is, "How fast can I make this go away?!" This leads some to head for chemical pesticide solutions and other toxic shampoos (like Rid or Equate). There are two major problems with this approach: first that a significant percentage of lice strains are now immune to the stuff (and it only takes one survivor to start all over again), and second that research has increasingly shown that these pesticides have potential to cause nerve damage in children. That all adds up to old-school lice shampoos being dangerous and ineffective—and not even quick, since they require 10 days of treatment with combing, just like natural solutions.
The reality is that the tried-and-true way to make a head louse-free is to comb it and comb it (generally many times over several days) with a lice comb. This can be challenging on all sorts of levels; it can be uncomfortable or even painful for the child, and difficult for the parent. If you have excellent eyesight and a patient child (or one with short, sleek hair), you might be able to manage this on your own—though you will still need another adult to comb you, too. Lice almost never stick to one head per home, and if anyone in your home goes untreated, the whole cycle begins again.
Between combings, sleeping with a head soaked in olive oil or a natural lice oil smothers any lice that hatch unnoticed and can make combing easier, too. There are many natural lice remedies on the market; most include essential oils like tea tree oil, lavender, peppermint, or rosemary, all of which are either unpleasant or dangerous to lice. Keeping these oils in the hair for more than six hours at a time (usually overnight in a shower cap) smothers any live lice. The process has to be repeated over the course of two to three weeks, since any eggs missed in combing are unaffected by the oils until they hatch.
The process of combing and oiling definitely works and is non-toxic, but it takes vigilance and persistence over a couple of weeks. If you're prepared to pay extra for something easier or faster, read on.
Lice removal companies and salons
An easier solution (though not the cheapest) is having a lice specialist come to the home. We're fortunate in LA to have dozens of in-home lice services, most of whom offer help seven days a week, with prices starting at around $100. A list of some of the city's top lice specialists is below. All of the companies on this list treat without toxic chemicals; they use natural oils and comb like crazy. To be truly cured of a case of lice, it's necessary to get rid of all lice, nits, and eggs—and these can be so small that many of us can't see them at all (not to mention they look WAY too much like dandruff!); having a professional do the job takes a huge weight off parental shoulders. Also, professional nit-pickers can provide certificates to get your kid back into school when required. Home lice pros usually help with advice on the big home cleaning job, too.
The companies below are generally available on short notice and treat everyone in the home in one or two visits, with instructions on how to follow up afterward:
Nitpickers by Nature
Another option we have in LA is a nit-picking salon. Salons like Hair Fairies, Hair Wizards, Honeycomb, Lice Clinic of Los Angeles, and BH Lice Masters are usually cheaper than home lice services, as long as you're not freaked out by sitting in a waiting room full of kids with lice. The best approach can be asking for the first appointment of the morning.
The only quick fix
Some of us have hair that is too thick, long, or curly to be conquered easily by a nit comb. There is one other natural treatment option which is mercifully quick and effective, known as the AirAllé (formerly called the LouseBuster). The device is, essentially, a high-heat, targeted hair dryer that bakes the little critters right off the scalp. It can be a little hard to take, but after an hour or so of scalp-baking (with a bit of combing to remove the bodies) the whole nasty business is a bad memory. The companies in the LA area that offer this louse-baking treatment are Hair Whisperers, offering home-based treatment at around $200, and Lice Clinics of America, with salons at a dozen locations around the Southland. AirAllé is not recommended for very small children because of the high temperature; for bushy-haired big kids and grown-ups, though, it's a godsend.
Whatever treatment you go for, a major housecleaning job goes with it. Be prepared to strip all the beds and wash clothes, coats, hats, scarves, towels, and blankets - preferably in hot water and the tumble dryer. Pillows and comforters can skip the washing but need to spend at least half an hour in the dryer on high heat, and stuffed animals either need the same treatment or a couple of weeks in quarantine, sealed up in a plastic bag. Hair ornaments, combs, small stuffed animals, and other items that don't go in the dryer can spend 6-8 hours in the freezer. The key is to make sure that any missed eggs do not remain viable. Although lice themselves cannot survive off the scalp for more than 48 hours, eggs can survive for weeks and hatch later - at which point, if they find a head, it all starts all over again. A good baking or freezing breaks the cycle.
So how do we stop lice from returning? Well, of course there are no guarantees, but you can improve your kids' odds. First line of defense is to shampoo with something lice hate the smell of. Tea tree oil shampoo works well (Trader Joe's has a great one) or peppermint oil shampoos (even Suave has one of these) keep hair smelling great to us and lousy to lice. Next add hair products - gel, mousse, hairspray - anything that makes hair less sleek and therefore less easy to climb. Girls should put their hair up in ponytails during school outbreaks, and if your child's school allows hats or caps that helps, too. Just make sure your little one knows better than to let anyone else try his hat on!
And finally, if just thinking about this has you itching and wondering if those flecks on your kid's scalp are lice, guess what: there's an app for that! The Is it Lice app helps you turn your iPhone into a lice-hound.
Originally published January 5, 2013