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The facts of lice

Published on: March 01, 2010

“Your daughter has lice,” the school secretary says into the phone. “Can you come pick her up?” On the other end of the line, Marie (who doesn’t want her last name used), a mother of three in Lynnwood, freezes for a moment with her phone to her ear. After getting over her initial shock, she blurts, “I’ll be there right away.”

Marie says this phone call was somewhat embarrassing. “I never in a million years thought my kids would have lice. We’re clean people,” she says. But contrary to popular belief, lice actually prefer a clean head, and getting lice is so common that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are between 12 million and 25 million infestations nationwide each year, mostly in preschool- and elementary-school-age children, and more often in girls than boys.

Louse Lice are parasites that live only on humans, feeding on small amounts of blood from the scalp. Their eggs, called nits, look like tiny yellow or tan dots and take about a week to hatch. An adult louse can live for 40 days, laying 50 to 150 nits in a lifetime, and the louse can survive up to three days off the scalp. Because of this life cycle, a lice outbreak can seem to be gone, but then come back again. One nit can be easily missed, or a hair with a nit on it can fall off the head and hatch to find a new host or re-infect the original child.

“This is why getting rid of lice can be tricky,” explains Nancy Gordon, owner of Lice Knowing You, a local company that makes house calls to remove lice. She recommends not just treating the lice in the hair, but thoroughly cleaning the home environment as well for lice.

Lice can hold their breath, so washing hair with regular shampoo does not get rid of them. “You cannot rely on just one thing to take care of your lice problem,” explains Gordon, who uses all-natural products. To help treat lice problems, she applies a plant-based enzyme that dissolves nit glue and follows it up with an oil treatment that saturates the hair, letting the child sit for an hour with their hair covered by a shower cap. Then she spends as much time as it takes to diligently nit-pick and go through all the sections of the child’s hair with a nit comb.

Natural remedies for lice such as Gordon’s appeal to parents who want to avoid using chemicals on their children. But when a lice outbreak spreads in a classroom, it’s not unusual for parents to disagree on the best way to get rid of lice. Some parents insist insecticide shampoos are the most effective because they kill lice and might kill some of the nits, while more natural remedies such as using olive oil, petroleum jelly or mayonnaise rely on suffocating the lice and do not kill nits. The problem with oil-based remedies is that if all the hair and scalp are not completely coated, or if the child lies down or smudges some of the oil, the lice can still survive.

“Tempers can really fly when moms think they’ve taken care of the problem with mayonnaise, and then the lice just keep coming back to infect the other kids in class all over again,” says Marie, who chose an over-the-counter lice chemical kit. Her daughter’s lice were gone in three days.

But opponents of the chemical camp have some concerning facts in their back pocket. Permethrin (over the counter) and lindane (prescription) are insecticides that are the active ingredient in most chemical lice treatments. The Environmental Protection Agency lists them as toxic to humans, and if used too often, they can harm the liver and nervous system. California has banned the use of lindane in 2002.

“Lindane can be extremely dangerous,” says Sheila Kingsbury, a naturopathic physician and faculty member at Bastyr University in Kenmore. “This chemical is absorbed into a child’s body through the scalp or by inhalation of the fumes. It can cause breathing problems in an asthmatic child, and can also cause vomiting, seizures, convulsions and negative effects to the rhythm of the heart.”

The Food and Drug Administration has approved lice treatments containing insecticides for one-time use or for use during a limited time period only (depending on the product). But Gordon says that in her experience, she’s found that parents can become so overwhelmed and desperate to get rid of the lice that they disregard the warnings on the box and use it over and over again.

“Parents don’t want to be responsible for spreading lice, and they don’t want to be labeled as not having a clean home, so they want to get rid of it quickly,” says Kingsbury, who prescribes her patients an herbal lice recipe.

Another alternative to treating lice that’s neither organic nor chemical is the “Nuvo” method, which was developed by a San Francisco dermatologist. It uses Cetaphil skin cleanser and blow drying of the hair to make a shrink-wrap-like layer around each louse. A study published in the September 2004 issue of the journal Pediatrics found it to be 96 percent effective.

Redmond mom Christa Tinker used Cetaphil for lice on her 4- and 8-year-old children a couple years ago. “It was pretty easy. I put it on their hair, then dried it with the hairdryer. It took about five days to get rid of [the lice].”

Lice remedies

Medicated treatments:

• Over-the-counter lice kits can be found at drugstores and include a lice-killing shampoo, a comb-out gel for nits and a home interior spray that kills lice and nits.

• Your pediatrician can prescribe a lice treatment shampoo.

Natural remedies:

• Mayonnaise

• Olive oil

• Castor oil

• Tea tree oil

• Neem oil

Dr. Kingsbury’s naturopathic lice recipe:

Start with 2 ounces of olive oil. Add 10 drops each of the following essential oils: tea tree, eucalyptus, rosemary and lavender. Mix well and saturate the child’s hair with the oil. Cover with a shower cap and leave on overnight. In the morning, thoroughly comb hair with a nit comb. Make a tea out of rosemary and sage, and let cool. Wash out the hair with a tea tree oil shampoo. For the final rinse, use the tea. Repeat each night for one week, then once a week for three weeks, using a nit comb each day.

Alternative remedies:

• Petroleum jelly

• Baby oil

• Cetaphil skin cleanser and a hair dryer

Home cleaning recommendations from Lice Knowing You:

• Boil the nit comb after each use

• Wash all the child’s bedding in hot water each day

• Iron the child’s mattress

• Vacuum daily or have carpets cleaned

• Put all stuffed animals in plastic bags, seal with duct tape and put them away for at least two weeks.

• When there’s a lice outbreak at school, have children immediately put their coats in the dryer for a half-hour on high heat when they get home from school.

Web resources:

Lice Knowing You

The Lice Clinic (mobile lice removal)


Katie Amodei is freelance reporter, mother and stepmother who lives in Lynnwood.


Originally published in the March, 2008 print edition of ParentMap.

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