The kids have gone back to school, and along with the report cards, notes about field trips, and announcements concerning parent-teacher conferences, parents may get a notice about something else: lice. Although there are three main types of lice—body, pubic, and head—the most common type and the one that typically affects children is head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis).
The Canadian Paediatric Society notes that clinicians should let parents know that:
- Head lice infestations are common among school-aged kids and are not
associated with poor hygiene or disease
- Head lice infestations can be asymptomatic for weeks
- It is not uncommon for head lice infestations to be misdiagnosed since an
accurate diagnosis requires identification of live lice and not just the presence of
nits (eggs) on the scalp
Contrary to popular thought, lice don’t fly or hop; they crawl, which is what your children feel and causes them to scratch!
Indications of a head lice infestation include intense itching, a tickling feeling when hair moves, tiny red bumps on the scalp and neck, and difficulty sleeping (since lice are most active in darkness).
Getting rid of head lice naturally
To get rid of these nasty creatures, there are a variety of conventional head lice
treatments on the market, both over-the- counter and prescription. These products
contain permethrin, pyrethrin, and additives and are toxic and associated with some
significant side effects. Thankfully there are also safe, natural ways to eliminate lice at
home using common items.
Whichever approach you use, you should know it typically takes several weeks of daily
or near daily effort to get rid of head lice on children as well as in your home.
Wet Combing. This technique involves the use of a special comb (fine-tooth nit comb)
and perhaps some hair conditioner (an anti-lice conditioner if possible) to make the task
easier. Every three to four days for at least two weeks after you do not see any lice in
the hair or scalp, you need to completely wet the hair of the affected individual and then
comb the entire head of hair, starting at the scalp and working down to the tips of the
hair. Once the entire head has been combed, repeat so you cover the whole head
Clean, clean, clean. It’s not enough to eliminate the lice on your child’s head; you must
also get rid of the critters in your home. That means sanitizing all combs, brushes, and
hair accessories. Combs and brushes can be washed with soap and very hot (130 °F)
water and soap, or you can soak them in rubbing alcohol for at least 60 minutes. The
same precautions should be extended to items that could be contaminated with lice, including bedding, towels, clothing, and stuffed animals. If you cannot wash any of
these items, you can place them in an airtight plastic bag for two weeks.
Vacuum. Another bit of cleaning advice involves vacuuming thoroughly and often
during a lice outbreak. This includes both your floors and furniture, especially
upholstered chairs and couches. For added protection, you can cover the furniture for at
least two weeks after you vacuum it to help prevent recurrence of a lice infestation.
Smother the lice. The study results on the effectiveness of smothering lice have been
mixed. However, when combined with wet combing, this technique can be quite
successful. Recommended “smothering” ingredients include almond, coconut, and olive
oils, although some people swear that mayonnaise or butter works well.
To smother lice, completely coat the hair and scalp with the chosen substance and
comb through the hair while you work. It helps to rinse the comb with very hot water as
you comb through the hair. After you have combed the entire head, shampoo the hair
twice. This entire routine—from coating the hair to shampooing twice—should be daily
for seven days. Starting with day eight and continuing for two weeks, you should wet
comb the hair daily.
Use essential oils. A number of essential oils have been shown to kill lice eggs and
adults, including eucalyptus, lavender, tea tree, anise, lemon tea tree, and ylang ylang.
In a recent multicenter, randomized, assessor-blind Australian study, for example,
investigators compared use of eucalyptus oil and lemon tea tree oil applied three times
with seven-day intervals between treatments with conventional treatment (pyrethrins
and piperonyl butoxide) applied twice with a seven-day interval. A single-blind, open trial
also was conducted to evaluate efficacy.
The eucalyptus/lemon tea tree mixture was found to be more than twice as effective at
eliminating head lice than the conventional treatment option. In test tubes, the essential
oil combination was 100 percent effective in killing the lice. Based on these findings, the
authors concluded that the essential oil treatment is a safe, effective, and easy
alternative in treating head lice. In a previous study, a combination of coconut oil and
anise essential oil was more effective than permethrin in treating lice: 82 percent
success rate vs 42 percent among permethrin users.
Use a vinegar and oil treatment. You can make your own coconut oil and essential oil
lice treatment. Combine 1 cup water, 2 cups apple cider vinegar, 3 tablespoons coconut
oil, and 1 teaspoon each of any anti-lice oils mentioned above. Apply about half of the
solution to the scalp, massage it in well, and make sure it reaches the hair ends. Comb
through the hair with a nit comb. Cover the head with a shower cap and remain covered
for two hours. Allow the cap to get warm by sitting in the sun or under a light if possible.
When you remove the cap, place it in a sealed bag for the trash. Comb the hair again,
wash it with shampoo, rinse, and repeat. Combine 2 cups apple cider vinegar and 1 cup
water and place in a spray bottle. Spray half of the mixture on the hair, then pour the
remaining vinegar mixture over the hair and massage lightly. Rinse thoroughly and
comb the hair again. Finally, apply a light application of coconut oil. This process needs to be repeated every 5 to 10 days for three or four weeks. Throughout this period, you
should comb the hair twice daily with a nit comb and apply coconut oil, which should be
left in the hair to repel and kill lice.
A few words of advice: if any of the natural treatments don’t work after two weeks or if
you notice signs of infection, such as swelling, fever, unhealed sores, redness, or pain,
contact your doctor. If you use an essential oil, be sure to test it on a patch of skin first
to determine if your child has an allergic reaction to the oil.
Written by Deborah Mitchell. Deborah Mitchell is passionate about personal health and the well-being of animals and the planet. She has authored, coauthored, and ghostwritten more than 40 books, contributes regularly to several websites, and shares information on physical, emotional, and spiritual health on her blog, deborahmitchellbooks.com.
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Burgess IF et al. Clinical trial showing superiority of a coconut and anise spray over
permethrin 0.43% lotion for head louse infestation. European Journal of Pediatrics 2010
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Canadian Paediatric Society. Head lice infestations: clinical update. Accessed August
Greieve KA, Barnes TM. The efficacy of Australian essential oils for the treatment of
head lice infestation in children: a randomized controlled trial. Australas Journal of
Dermatology 2017 Mar 7. Accessed August 21, 2017.
Mayo Clinic. Head lice. Self management. Accessed August 20, 2017.