Friday, June 27, 2008

A Completely Different Subject: Head Lice

OK, I know lice are gross, but as I was pondering which pearls of wisdom I would share with you today, I became fixated on the idea that very few people know how to eradicate lice naturally. I've helped with friends' foster children's infestations and "trained" the staff at my kids' old school. I have picked lice and nits off of enough kids for several lifetimes. I am sorry to say, I am an expert. An amateur expert. Here's to hoping my overabundance of experience helps someone out!

To help this conversation go smoothly, here are some definitions: lice = the bugs, a louse = a single bug, and nits = lice eggs.

Now, why not just use the medicated treatments available over the counter? Several reasons.
  • Over the counter lice treatments are insecticides, poisons.
  • Skin is semi-permeable. Chemicals can soak through. The scalp is skin.
  • It doesn't work . That's right. The wee beasties just walk right on through the foamy poison. One peditrician told me that you have to leave RID or NIX on for at least an hour. Even then it doesn't work. Trust me on this: lice are IMMUNE to the stuff.
  • The prescription stuff doesn't work much better.
  • It is really expensive, especially because re-infestation is common so you need to buy the treatments several times.
The super-natural solution? Just let His people go! (Joke. Kidding. On to the natural solution...)
1. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so avoid "risky" behaviors.
If you work with children, eventually one of those children will have lice. When it happens, try to avoid physical contact, but be kind. I don't mean you can't interact with the child, but avoid hugging, touching his head or shoulders, and leaning your head down next to theirs. Keep your own hair pulled back, out of the way.

While it's fun to share, lice aren't fun, so teach children to avoid sharing certain things. Don't share combs, brushes or other hair stuff. Don't share hats, sweaters, coats, scarves, helmets, headphones, pillows, or stuffed animals.

When in groups, don't stack coats, hats, or backpacks with others. At school or church have your children hang their coats so that they do not touch another person's coat or put their coats in a backpack or plastic bag. Be sure your children use their own sleeping bag and pillow when sleeping away from home.
2. Early detection is important. If you have school-aged children, check hair daily. For kids with really short hair (military cut), you can check while jogging by. But for longer hair, boy or girl, check daily. Lift the hair at base of the neck and look for tiny critters (sesame seed sized or smaller) and/or very small white/grey/yellow/beige things stuck to a hair shaft. Repeat with the hairline around the ears. Do an extra check in good light if you see anyone scratching-even just a little. A quick check now will save you dozens of hours of nit-picking later. Here's what you are looking for.
Nits on dark hair:

Nits on light hair:
Notice that the nits look very different on different colors of hair. If you see something, don't panic, just touch it with your fingernail or a pencil tip. It is most likely a little dandruff. Could be sand. Dandruff or sand will move when touched. Nits need to be scraped off in order to move.
OK, so you saw something. It didn't move when you tried to move it. It is probably a nit.
Oh no! Something moved! A louse:
What now?

3. Check every member of the family. Everyone will need to do the oil treatment, but knowing who is infected is important information.
4. Tell people. I know it's hard, but bite the bullet. Call the school, call the play group, call the person in charge of the children's church activities. Send an anonymous note if necessary. Ask them send out a neutral email to all of the people who meet in your building. [Simple sample: There has been a confirmed case of lice in the church building/classroom/school. Please check your children carefully.] Not only does this protect the uninfested, it notifies the parent whose child infested your child, and it decreases the chances your child will become reinfested from the original source.
5. Go to the store... and buy shower caps for every member of your family (pay up--buy the nice ones), a big container of olive oil, a metal lice comb (if you want) and extra vacuum cleaner bags. Rent a new movie. Pick up anything you are going to need for the 24 hours; you are going to be busy and your kids are going to be bored
6. Olive Oil Time! Have your child get into old comfy clothes. Apply a liberal amount of oil to the hair. You want every hair to be completely saturated. Cover with a shower cap. Place an old towel over the shoulders to catch any drippies.
Repeat for the entire family. Leave oil and shower cap in place for at least 18 hours. Really, 18 hours. Do you want to do this again and again and again? 18 hours.
[A side note: some people like to use mayonnaise. It works, but mayo goes rancid much faster than oil, so I stick with oil.]
7. Clean the house. I know. I'm sorry, but it must be done. Lice don't live long off of their human hosts, but they live long enough to reinfest you. Do it while you are housebound with your doofy-looking shower caps.
  • Soak all brushes, combs and hair accessories in hot water for at least 10 minutes. I prefer to run it all through the dishwasher, but the soak should be adequate.
  • Machine wash all bedding and dry in the drier on hot (repeat in three days). Start with the infected family member's beds.
  • Vacuum couches, chairs, carpets, car upholstery. Throw away the vacuum clearer bag after you finish. Use a new bag tomorrow. Throw it away.
  • Machine wash anything that comes in contact with hair that can be machine washed: cloth baby swing seat covers, high chair covers, car seat covers. Dry in the dryer on high if possible. Line dry, if you must, but it's not as effective.
  • Any stuffed animals or clothes laying on the floor or in beds should be washed and dried on hot.
  • You can bag up anything that cannot be washed in an airtight bag for thirty days, but I don't trust that method. Our family's introduction to the joys of lice came from a couch pillow at a friend's home that had just been taken out after its 90 day airtight quarantine. Vacuum any quarantined items before putting them back into use.
  • Mop hard flooring.
8. Time to wash hair. After your 18 hours of olive oil and shower caps, wash everyone's hair thoroughly. Depending on your hair type, this may take several "rinse and repeat"s.  I use about a tablespoon of baking soda combined with regular shampoo to get the oil out more quickly. You will have lovely, soft hair. That's good. You'll be touching it a lot.
9. Nit removal. Good news: nit removal only needs to happen to the infected members of the family. Now, in theory, after 18 hours in oil, all the nits should be dead. Do not believe theories. Get every one of those nasty nits out. If you caught it early, there shouldn't be too many of them.
They sell several kinds of nit looseners. Don't waste your money.
There are several kinds of nit removal combs. Choose a metal one with very fine teeth. Combs work best on straight hair that has thick individual strands.
Bad news: Most children have hair too fine for a nit comb (including the three examples pictured above). Each hair that has a nit on it will need to be individually scraped. Sorry, I wish it wasn't true.
Here are the scraping procedures:
  • Gather your equipment: a cup of water, a chair for the victim, something to hold the sections of hair you are not working with (elastic bands, banana clips, etc.), a nit comb if you are going to use one.
  • If at all possible, go outside into the sunlight. You will see the nits much better. If outside isn't available, use a very bright light.
  • Start wherever you want, you'll get to it all eventually. Separate a small section of hair. Secure the hair that is not being examined.
  • Look for nits.
  • When you find one, very slowly, carefully, using the nails of your thumb and forefinger scrape the hair shaft. This will slide the nit off without hurting your child. The nit is now located under your fingernail. (Do this for any dead lice you run into too.)
  • Put your fingers in the cup of water and agitate them lightly to so that the nit (or dead louse) falls in the water.
  • You will get a rhythm going.
  • Repeat until you or your child can't stand it any more.
  • Take a break.
  • Every time you stop, empty your cup of nitty water into the toilet or sink. Refill when you start again.
  • Continue until your child's entire head has been searched and all nits have been removed, taking as many breaks as necessary.
You will need to check for nits and lice every morning and afternoon for a week, in bright light, outside, if possible. Remove any nits you may have missed. Then after that you can go back to your casual daily check. At about two weeks post treatment, do one more thorough check. (If you see any live lice, repeat the entire process. You have been reinfested.)
With chemical treatment, reinfestation is nearly universal, but every family I know who has used this process has had no reinfestation. And no reinfestation is good. Very, very good.
Best of luck and sorry to gross you out prior to your need. (My head is ichy. How about yours?)


Zina said...


I have 4 kids ages 10 to 1 and we have not had lice yet. I hadn't realized how lucky we are. I'm going to bookmark this method but I really hope I'll never have to use it. My 8-year-old has incredibly thick hair; it would take me 18 hours just to nit-pick it.

Zina said...

Oh, P.S. yes, my head is itchy now. And my arms. And legs. And toes. And neck. Eek.

Jami said...

Zina-Hope you never need to use the bookmark!

My first was just two when we ran into the cursed pillow. I saw something move and ran her over to the doctor's office and we had a bunch of people staring at her head in confusion (the wee beasties were an odd color) until a former school nurse stopped by, glanced, and said yep that's them.

Really it was all my friends' foster kids that gave me the ridiculous amount of experience.


This post made me itchy all over. Well, not ALL OVER. I'm sure I don't suffer from pubic lice.


I got lice once as a kid from the daughter of my mom's skeezy boyfriend. When my mom told him about it he just laughed and said, "Oh yeah, that darn school keeps sending my kids home with lice....." :0

I gave it to my brother. My brother got a Yul Brynner shave. I got all my long hair cut into a mushroom style to make it easier to get rid of the nits.

6k9s said...

I sit in Sweden scratching my head. Great article, ever so happy you never had lice. Worms, yes...but that is another level of intervention.

Jami said...

Yeah worms, lice, frogs, snakes, fevers, stomach ills, rashes of all sorts. Pretty gross. Parenting is not for wimps.

Oh by the way you don't have to rub in the Sweden thing. I know. Your skies aren't filled with smoke. It's not 300 degrees. Yeah, yeah, yeah. :P

E-Teen said...

Ew. Just ew.

Jami said...

Ew is right. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Annette Lyon said...

I had lice as a kid--I don't remember it being so traumatic, but then, I wasn't the mom doing all the work, either! Ick.

And yes, now I'm all itchy. Thanks. :)

Nancy said...

But how do i tell if i have lice or dandruff? i scratch my head, white stuff comes out on my nails. Yes, its very EWW i know, but what do i do?

Jami said...

That'd be dandruff, Nancy. Nits have to be scraped off each individual hair. Go to get your hair cut, if you want to be sure. If you have nits, the stylist will tell you quietly that she cannot cut your hair. Good luck.

Robin said...

I had lice when i was a kid. I remember my mom using RUBBING ALCHOHOL on me....
I had to google lice because i dont remember what to loof for. This article was the best i found. my 5yearold daughters school just sent home a HEADLICE NOTIFCATION!!! EEEEEEEEEEK!!!
I do not think my daughter has it tho kuz im always putting moisturizers in her hair, she has very curly hair....

Jami said...

Thanks, Robin. I hope you never need the info. You can try a little tea tree oil in the conditioner to discourage infestation. It's moderately effective for prevention.

And, ow, rubbing alcohol? Ow.

Anonymous said...

talk about yuck.YUCK.YUCK.YUCK.little bugs crawling in your comfotable little hair-bed while you are itchy all over.AND you can't scratch them off.try putting hot petrol oil on your hair.worked for me!hope that helps!i am 11 yrs old.and i had it when i was in 2008 10 yr old .bye!

Kyle, Marci, Kaleb, Jaina, and Brantley said...

So you can't keep a shower cap on a just under 2 year old, so is it okay to just keep adding a little oil to her hair every few hrs for the 18 hrs? My friend linked me to you after us leaving in the middle of worship service as I was putting my daughter's hair back up for the second time that day and suddenly noticed tons of little bugs crawling around in her hair. It was so gross, and to boot I have it too.

Anonymous said...

Jesus, I think I may have lost my mind, I hhave tried every single recipe I have found on the internet, but I am not even sure if my daughter has it!! Haven't seen a nit in her hair but took out something that looked like a flea yesterday. My head is itchy a little, but just when I think about it too much... I have no one to look at my head for me to check. Should I buy and OTC med just in case? But then who would get the nits out? My nerves are shot and I literally feel like I am going crazy. Would I just know for sure? What can I do to find out if I have it?

Jami said...


The shower caps are mainly for keeping your house from becoming horribly oil-stained. If you don't use one, I'd say reapplying the olive oil from time to time is probably a good idea.

If you have them you need to have someone preform the whole nit removal procedure on you, someone with experience preferably. Good eyesight is a must too. You cannot remove your own nits.

Anonymous, ask a school nurse to take a look or a foster mom or a social worker or a hairstylist. They are generally really good at identification. If you are not seeing nits, but removed a bug, just keep checking twice a day outside in the sunlight for two weeks. Could have just been a flea. Maybe. I'd keep checking if it were me.

Anonymous said...


My name is Renee. Here is my situation: my daughter spends a week with me and a week with her dad in our custody split. 4 weeks ago, there was a lice outbreak at her dad's, although she never actually got the lice. She was treated with the NIX by her dad "just in case". Then she came to my house. I never worried about her still having it, because she didn't have it to begin with, and she was treated for it anyways. So, now this week she leaves my house and goes to his house, and a day later, I get a call saying she has lice. I think they never got rid of thier infestation, and that is how she got it. But, she could have had it while at my house and we didn't know it.

My question: do you think I could have it from her? Should I do the oil treatment on myself, even if I can't find evidence that I have lice? She isn't here for the rest of the week, but I have cleaned (like a mad woman) since she left. I feel itchy..mainly out of fear of having the lice...but I have not found any lice or nits.

Thanks for you help!

Jami said...

Hi Renee. I'm sorry. I really do feel your pain.

Two weeks is about right. So imagine this: your daughter gets treated with relatively ineffective Nix, and is completely lice and nit free. She gets in the car to come back to you. Lays her backpack down on the seat. A single louse gets on it. Then on her when she uses her backpack. Then begins to lay eggs, lots of them. They hatch in a week. She's had them at your house. And unfortunately she's probably reinfesting her dad's place.

You do need to clean like mad. You also need to treat yourself with olive oil. There is no way to check yourself for nits. And most people are really bad at identifying lice and nits in their early stages, only catching it once it is a huge infestation.

Treat your sweet daughter to an olive oil spa day when she comes home and treat ALL of her stuff. Your ex-husband needs to repeat the whole cleaning cycle at his house too.

Do this routine every time she comes home until they are completely clear for three weeks at his house.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. But those little buggers are good at survival. Good luck.

Anonymous said...


Renee here again. My daughter comes home on Monday. Do you think it would be okay to wait and do my oil treatment on Monday with her? She was home with me from Sept 4th until the 10th, and so I feel like if she had lice then that I would have full blown lice by now, and yet I can't find anything. I'm still doubting whether I was infected or not, but I don't know how to tell for sure, short of waiting for something to appear. Will the oil kill all the nits and lice, even if I can't find any in my hair?

Jami said...

Hi there, Renee. Yeah, do the 18 hrs of olive oil with her. It's less lonely that way. It will kill all the lice and many of the nits, but really someone needs to remove any nits you may have. Go to the salon for a haircut and if you have any nits the stylist will tell you. If you do, you will need to find someone to remove them. Do it in the sunshine. So much easier to see them that way. Good luck.

Anonymous said...


Renee again...well, here we go again. I did the oil treatment like you said on Monday with my daughter. I spent the entire week checking her hair, and had mine checked every other day (I never had lice that anyone has found). I thought it was cleared up. Well, so Friday she went to her dads (she was only with me 4 days this time), sure enough, first night there, he sends me a message saying he found two nits.

I have oil on my head again...and I'm cleaning again...Not one person has found a nit/lice on my head, even though the top of my head has been feeling itchy..but I don't want to take any chances.

Is it possible those nits were there the whole time and I never found them? Or, is it more likely she has the lice too, and I just missed them? I'm making myself crazy..and every time someone checks my hair and doesn't find anything, I still don't feel reassured. I still feel like I must have them. Is the itching intense, or more like a burning itch?

Anyways, you are an angel.


Jami said...

Hi Renee.
My guess is the two nits are either dandruff or a couple of old ones you missed. (Be sure to check in the sunshine.) Why don't you and your ex do a check at trade off so that you are both seeing the same thing at the same time? Sounds like you are on the tail end of this thing. I'll keep my fingers crossed for you.

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

we got repeated lice infestations when I was growing up. And yeah, the shampoos don't work.(Well, it worked one time b/c I had just put it in for the ten minute wait and my mom said it was time to go to church. After three hours, I think my scalp was toxic. Gone. Gone gone gone.)

I came up w/ my own way in high school when my little sister brought them home to us. I remembered the awful infestation I'd had in elementary school (see above comment). I attacked my head w/ my blow dryer. Every day for a week. It worked. I killed them all.

Jami said...

I've heard of people using hair dryers. I seems like you'd get a lot of reinfestations, but I haven't tried it.

Anonymous said...

This Mom said . . .
When I discovered lice in my daughter's scalp when she was 10 years old, there were hundreds of nits and dead lice in her thick long hair. It was too late to go to the pharmacy,so I took her into the shower and poured my husband's Italian Grappa (extremely high alcohol content) over her head and that sure worked for our first line of defense effort on eradication. The next day we began the premithrin(sp)cleansing and linen/bedding/clothing laundering. One must be diligent in the routine or you're just wasting your time because those bugs will just hatch again if you only do this procedure once. Also, they typically do not care to feed on head/hair that has been chemically treated; i.e. colored. So, that's the consolation prize to most of us moms!

Haley said...

im 13 years old. a few weeks ago i found a few things that looked kind of like lice. i looked them up on google, and they look sort of alike. now, while im on the computer, i found another one. i stared at it for so long, my eyes hurt now. when i found the bugs before, i told my mom, and she freaked out a little, and used a comb to try to find some more, but we couldn't. but now im freaking out! what should i do?!

Anonymous said...

Through my job I visit many people's houses and interact with several children. I first got lice several months ago and used the store bought poison and washed everything. However I cannot seem to rid myself of them. I have tried olive oil under a shower cap over night (so it prob. wasn't 18 hrs.) and mayo over night too. I use tea tree oil shapmoo and sometimes put the straight oil behind my ears and on the nape of my neck. They have also seemed to change over time. The first infestation the bugs seemed to be white. Later black. Most recently I wonder if I'm going crazy. Some seem a bit "inky". They are black and leave a type of ink when crushed. I haven't seen those recently, what I am dealing with now seem to be really long spider-web type threads connected together. Or short little straight black lines. Legs maybe? Are they some other type of bug or nothing and I'm just paranoid? I don't know what is going on and am afraid I am infesting everywhere I go. I am just about ready to give up. Help!

Jami said...

Haley and Anonymous, you need to have someone else check your head, a hairdresser, a nurse, a friend who is a foster mom, someone who knows what they are looking for. It is impossible for me to tell without looking what's bugging you. You can do the whole procedure explained in the blog post, but it's a lot of work if you don't really have lice.

If it turns out that you do have lice, do NOT skip the housecleaning or the telling your friends. Seriously, if you have lice, you got it from someone--probably someone you know. And you'll probably get them again unless they ALSO get rid of theirs. Good luck, my friends.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Jami,
I'm doing your oil treatment right now but I also have some questions. 1, Why/how does this treatment work? 2, why do you have to comb out all the nits after? They should be dead... shouldn't they?

Jami said...

Hey Anon.

It works because it suffocates them. In theory it should work for nits too, but those buggers are really good at survival. If you leave the nits in, hairstylists cannot legally cut your hair. Kids won't be let back into school. Because very likely one of those babies will hatch and it only takes one to start the whole nightmare all over again.

BTW, I'm not a doctor or nurse. I just can tell you what I've seen in the fifteen years since I was introduced to the joys of lice.

imateacher said...

Please help me. I'm a teacher and I have head lice. I got it from a student although I don't know who because we are on Christmas break. I have used the bad chemicals on my hair and I really don't know if they are gone because I still feel itchy. My scalp is dry and it hurts. I have not found any live lice lately(yes, I know this is more than disgusting), but my head it so dry that it is flakey and I don't know the difference between nits and debris. My whole head is sore. My husband is about to have me committed because I keep asking him to check my head. If your head is still itchy, how do you know when you are "done" with them? I have been cleaning like a mad woman (my 2 children ages 2 and 5 and my husband) are all bug free (praise God). Please help me!

Anonymous said...

I am with "imateacher" . I treated the whole family (5 of us). My hubby and older son were clean to start and I just used the regular over the counter stuff. I used that on myself as well. My too younger kids who were confirmed to have it at the dr. I used the prescription stuff. I have been "nit picking" what ever is left off those two but my hubby is not helping me at all.
The prescription stuff dried my head so I am dry and have dandruff flakes and he can't tell if it is dandruff or nits, he also does not have the pateince to pull out anything he finds.
We are back to school on monday I am using a natural preventative spray for my younger kids, washed and dried everything in the house. I am freaking because I don't know if I have nits or dandruff!! How can I explain the difference so my husband can understand. Thanks!!!

Jami said...

"If you see something, don't panic, just touch it with your fingernail or a pencil tip. It is most likely a little dandruff. Could be sand. Dandruff or sand will move when touched. Nits need to be scraped off in order to move."

Google dandruff, click images. Then google nits, click images. Show your husband. If he still seems reluctant to take them out, he will probably do a crappy job. Find a friend, preferably someone with experience.

Good luck.

Jami said...

BTW, the olive oil will also reduce the itching from dryness. Remember that lice bite. And like any insect bite, those bites itch. You can squish the mosquito, but you'll still feel the itch for a while.

All I can recommend is that you follow the suggestions in the post. You must get the nits out and you must get your house, car,and classroom clean. Super-de-dooper clean.