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Common Myths About … Head Lice

I never thought I’d be writing an article on how to deal with head lice. But the simple fact is that our toddler girl brought home a few after visiting with friends in the summer. And now I know far more than I ever wanted to know about head lice. (And yes, it has taken me six months to get up the courage to write this!)
There are so many myths out there about head lice. You probably know (or believe) some of these.
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Before I started writing this, I had a long conversation with my mother, who assured me that, from the time I entered elementary school until my youngest sister went to high school, she spent many, many hours applying lice-killing shampoo and using a lice and nit comb. That, she says, is why she thinks all children should have short hair. She never made a big deal of it – if you had asked me, I would have sworn that I never once had head lice.

(Are you squirming yet? The minute I hear, or read, the word “lice”, I start squirming, even if the nearest louse is miles away. I hate lice. And earwigs. I don’t know which one I hate most. Blech.)

And we were definitely not one of “those” families. In fact, my mother has always had the proverbial floor that you could eat from. It was a real shock when I left home and discovered that things quickly became dirty away from Mom. If cleanliness is next to godliness, my mother needs to be officially sainted.

So this leads to … 


Common Myths About Head Lice.

Oooh, ick! Only dirty people get head lice.

Absolutely untrue. Lice are most commonly found on girls aged 3-11, regardless of hair length, cleanliness, social status, etc., but they can be found on anyone. They don’t care if your hair is long, short, clean or dirty. No matter how much you wash, you can’t get rid of head lice. The nits stick to the hair shaft.

Lice only live in clean hair.

This is just as wrong as the opposite view. They don’t care how clean or dirty your scalp is.

They don’t just live on heads. They’ll go all over your body.

Just the head, actually. That’s why they’re called head lice. Adults can also get lice “down there”, in the other place where you tend to have thick, warm hair, and we usually call those crabs.

(Yes, that’s good for a double squirm.)

There are so many myths out there about head lice. You probably know (or believe) some of these.


Don’t get near someone who has them or you’ll get them.

Lice don’t jump or fly (they have no wings). They crawl. So the only way for them to travel to another person is for there to be head contact. That’s why they spread so quickly among children. Watch any group of toddlers playing and you’ll see plenty of chances for lice to crawl from one head to another. And from the children, the lice can pass to the unsuspecting but loving parents.

Lice are incredibly contagious.

They actually need head-to-head contact. Although they can travel on a comb, hat or pillow, they remain alive less than 24 hours on these items. So don’t go canoodling with someone who has head lice and you’ll likely be fine. You can’t get them by shaking hands, talking to someone, sitting next to them, etc. Head to head contact.

This is why you can have only ONE person in a household get lice. In our house, only our toddler was infected, but no one else has had them. 

Maybe They Came From the Cat

I’ve heard this one, too. Lice that live on human heads will not live on dogs or cats.


They’ll make you ill. They carry disease.

Okay, as gross as they are, and as uncomfortable as that itching is, lice are actually harmless. 


They itch. If you’re particularly sensitive to insects, you might have an allergic reaction to them. But they do not carry disease and they won’t actually harm you in and of themselves. In previous eras, like the Middle Ages, they were extremely common, infesting royalty and peasants alike.

Mayonnaise will get rid of them.

Studies have shown that they will not die even after a night covered with mayo, olive oil or Vaseline.

And it shouldn’t need saying, but kerosene or gasoline …. Seriously, don’t do it.

Combing kills lice by breaking their legs and preventing them from breeding.

Although using a lice and nit comb is very necessary, it will not leave your head full of tiny little crippled lice. Combing helps to remove them and makes it easier to find them. However, even if it doesn’t cripple the nasty little bugs, combing is the ONLY 100% effective way to get rid of lice. The shampoos help, but there’s no quick and easy solution. You need to comb. A lot. And for quite a while.

It’s easy to tell the difference between nits and dandruff.

Hardly. They look pretty much identical, which is why it can be easy to miss an infestation until the frenzied scratching begins. But here’s how to tell – lice eggs (nits) are firmly attached with a cement-like substance to the hair shaft. Dandruff is not attached to the hair. Live lice eggs are gray or caramel coloured. When they have hatched and are empty, they turn yelowish to white.

And how to tell the adult lice? Well, they have legs. So if your dandruff is trying to crawl off the lice and nit comb, you have lice.

The house needs to be scrubbed from top to bottom.

Not so much. Adult lice live less than 24 hours away from the human head.

IF you feel like doing it, vacuum sofas and mattresses. Clean bedding by hanging it in the sun for a few days, sticking it all in garbage bags that you seal and set out in the sun, or run them in a dryer for 20 minutes. It never hurts to get all the bedding aired, and if it makes you feel like you’re doing something useful, go ahead. But don’t panic if you can’t get that all done. Lice have been found in the pillows of less than 4% of infected people.

Here’s the best way to clean up an infestation – after treating with shampoo, go away on a weekend vacation (and comb, comb, comb!). After 55 hours without people, all lice in your bedding, hats, etc. will die. Although it seems expensive, you would be surprised how tempting it might seem.

Definitely treat everyone in the household.

Only treat someone with lice shampoo if a LIVE louse is found in their scalp. Live means actively crawling around on the scalp or the comb. 

Comb with a lice and nit comb and watch for dandruff that starts crawling off the comb. Everyone else needs careful checking every day for a week and a half, and then every week until all signs of lice are gone in the household. 

The combing is tedious, and it becomes harder to remember after the scratching stops, but it’s really important.

Have lice and nit combs in the house! They’re not expensive. Lice shampoo is nice to keep around, but it’s not necessary. The combs are much more important. 

And as a note – the plastic combs are good for removing live lice, but the metal lice and nit comb, although more expensive will help remove nits before they hatch. Have both around.

Lice shampoo kills lice immediately.

It can take several hours or even a few days to kill all of them. 

After treatment, comb, comb, comb. 

In fact, pretty much all sources agree that treatment should be repeated 5-7 days later because the shampoo just does not kill them all. 

Comb, comb, comb. (And keep combing!)

If you can still see eggs on the hair shaft, the infestation is still there.

No – only live, crawling lice indicate an infestation. The tiny little eggs are fastened to the hair shaft with a glue that won’t wash off. Even if the eggs are completely dead, they will remain until that hair fall out or is cut.

Keep your child home if you find lice in their hair.

Unless that’s the policy of your school, there’s no need. (According to our school’s secretary: “They probably got them at school!”) Children can have lice for several weeks before they are discovered, and then it might take several weeks to eradicate them. 

But if you do find lice in the hair of anyone in your family, your school would really appreciate a heads-up. In return, they will send a discreet notice to everyone in the school that “head lice have been found in the school population.” 

Because, guess what? If your child has them, you can pretty much guarantee that other children in the school have them, too. 

Let the school know that you found lice and tell them what you’re doing for treatment.

It’s embarrassing to get lice.

Have to agree with this one. 

But I have heard stories of “When MY child/ren brought home a head of lice” from some really surprising people over the past two days (like my mother!). Since 10% of children get infested every year, head lice is very, very common.

Gross as all get out, but common … harmless, and not terribly contagious.

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