How to Get Rid of Lice (Yes, Even Drug-Resistant Head Lice)

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Head lice seem to be ever-more rampant in Australia and across the nation mums are combing, combing, combing. It’s a ritual that oddly unites us with our own mothers, I can still remember my mum sitting in the bathroom with my sister and me picking out our nits. In my more modern version, there would be a nice glass of red wine to accompany the scene. I digress…

The Australian government estimates that as many as 23% of primary school age children have head lice at any given time, but fear not, we are not all doomed to live with lice forever. There are many treatment options. Let’s start with discussing what lice is and how it can be treated.

What is head lice?

Head lice is a common condition caused by infestation of the scalp with Pediculus humanus capitis (or, more simply put, the human head louse). While head lice are not dangerous and do not spread diseases, they can very itchy and uncomfortable. The head louse is a tiny gray-white insect. The female head louse lives for about one month but can lay 7 to 10 eggs per day. The eggs are called nits. The eggs attach to the base of the hair near the scalp and hatch in about eight days.

How do children catch head lice?

Head lice is spread through direct person to person contact. Despite what you may hear, head lice do not fly or jump and cannot be spread from person to person via pets. Typically, lice is spread through direct contact with the infected person’s hair (beware of shared selfies!). It can also be spread by contact with brushes, clothing, bedding and combs.

What are the symptoms of head lice?

Many people with head lice do not have symptoms, which is why some schools choose to have students regularly checked for lice. When symptoms occur, they can include itching and skin irritation of the scalp, neck and ears. Head lice are diagnosed by direct examination of the hair for lice and nits.

How do you get rid of head lice?

1. Chemical removal

You can purchase synthetic or natural insecticides that kill head lice at the supermarket or pharmacy (talk to your pharmacist to identify the best treatment option for you). It is important to follow the directions very carefully. Most of these medications will require a second treatment 7 to 10 days later because some lice may survive the first treatment.

2. Wet combing

You can avoid chemical treatments if you go with this option, however, it’s a very time-consuming process. Wet-combing involves wetting the hair and adding a lubricant, such as plain conditioner or olive oil. You then comb through the hair diligently for 15 to 30 minutes, removing all lice and nits. This process needs to be repeated every three to four days for two weeks after you see any adult lice. In some cities, you can hire a professional lice checker to perform this treatment for you.

How do you get rid of lice on bedding, clothing and toys?

Whether treated with topical medications or wet combing, all clothing, bedding, towels, and stuffed animals should be washed in hot water and dried in full sun or on the hot setting of your dryer. Dry cleaning is also effective. Any item that can’t be washed should be sealed in a plastic bag for two weeks.

How do you prevent lice?

Talk to your children about not sharing hair ties, brushes, combs and hats. There are also various lice-repelling shampoos and sprays that you can use (most contain tea tree oil); there’s no medical proof that they actually work, but they’re not harmful to your child and they may help prevent head lice.

More health information for a happy family:

Photo: Getty