There are so many myths out there about head lice. You probably know (or believe) some of these.
Four boys and I never had to deal with head lice. Then our first daughter visited with friends who had an infestation and she brought a few home.
There’s no such thing as a few head lice. ONE adult louse and suddenly everyone in the family is scratching.
Dealing with them exposed us to a lot of a itching and combing but also meant we had to learn about and dispel a number of myths about head lice.
Now I know far more than I ever wanted to about them. Let’s toss some myths that you might absolutely KNOW are true.
Let’s look at stuff like the difference between dandruff and lice nits, what kind of hair they prefer, lice treatments, and just how contagious these gross little insects are.
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According to my mother, lice-hunting started the day I entered elementary school. From then until my younger sister started high school, she spent many, many hours applying lice-killing shampoo and using a lice and nit comb. to check for lice.
“All children should have short hair.” – my mom
“All parents need to have lice combs.” – also my mom
Gotta admit, though, she never made a big deal of it. If you had asked me, I would have sworn that we never once had head lice. That that sort of thing happened to other families.
By the way, 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.
I don’t know which one I hate most. Blech.
We were definitely not one of “those” families. You know the mothers who mopped the floor daily and you could eat from it? That was my mom.
So this leads to …
How do you know if you have lice?
The obvious answer is that you’re going to itch and scratch.
And you will.
But to be really honest, I’m squirming and itching as I write this. The very thought of head lice can leave you scratching your scalp raw.
How often do we look at our own scalps? It’s like looking at our elbows, or our backs … not something you can do easily. (Really – you can’t look at your elbow without a mirror.)
And here’s the real problem – you probably won’t really start itching until the lice have been established for a few weeks. So don’t be too hard on whoever passed them along to you. It’s possible to have lice for quite a while before you get an itchy scalp. When it starts, it’ll be worse behind your ears and at the back of your neck. If someone looks at the back of your neck, they will probably see tiny bite marks.
To check for lice, wash your hair, condition it very well so that there are no tangles, and leave it damp. Working in sections, comb carefully through your hair with a metal nit comb. It’s best to have someone else do it, but you certainly can do it yourself if you need to. Wipe the comb on a tissue at every pass, checking for any movement at all.
If you have Afro-Caribbean hair, just use a regular comb. Your hair is too thick for those little nit combs, and it will be far too uncomfortable for you to use one.
Generally, our hair grows a centimeter a month. So if find nits attached to your hair, look at how far they are from the scalp. Those right by the hair root were freshly laid, but if you find lice nits more than an inch away from the root, you’ve had them for several months.
Oh, those nits an inch from your hair root no longer have baby lice in them. It only takes 8-12 days for a louse to hatch (and 1-2 weeks for them to mature and start laying more eggs).
Oooh, ick! Only dirty people get head lice.
Maybe you haven’t heard this one, but you’ve thought it.
You know, when you think “But lice only happen to OTHER people. Not us.”
Come on – I used to think it, and I can still hear that voice in the back of my head freaking out because lice are only found on dirty people who don’t clean their homes … or bodies or heads or … something. They don’t do something that they’re supposed to.
It’s absolutely untrue.
Lice are most commonly found on girls aged 3-11 – because little girls are more likely to cuddle and hug their friends, share hats, scarves, brushes, and stuff like that. Head lice don’t show a preference for hair length, cleanliness, social status or how often your mother washes the kitchen floor.
Although they’re most commonly found on young girls, they can be found on anyone.
The question of whether lice like clean or dirty hair is simply answered. They don’t care if your hair is long, short, clean or dirty.
Lice only live in clean hair.
Well, that might make some people feel better when they say that (although in the back of their minds, they’re screaming ‘dirty, dirty, dirty!’) but … it’s absolutely not true.
Honest to goodness, lice don’t care how clean or dirty your scalp is. ONE louse gets in your hair and lays eggs, and you could stand in the shower and scrub for a week. It won’t help.
They don’t just live on heads. They’ll go all over your body.
Well, kind of.
Head lice stick to your head, which is why we call them head lice, and they’re pretty much an equal opportunity pest.
And adults can get lice “down there”. That’s the one other place where you tend to have thick, warm hair. We usually call those crabs.
There are also body lice, also called clothes lice. You WILL notice if you have these.
Body lice are about the size of a sesame seed, and you will definitely see them crawling on your skin. THESE are the ‘dirty’ lice. They usually infest people who are unable to wash regularly or put on clean clothes, and they are passed around in dirty, overcrowded conditions. They lay their eggs in clothing seams and live on human blood.
The solution to body lice? Get out of the homeless shelter, take regular baths and put on clean clothes. Not you – you don’t live in a homeless shelter with hundreds of other people, you bathe more than once a year and you have at least semi-regular access to a washing machine? Okay, you likely don’t have body lice.
All three are different insects. Head lice do not become body lice.
Don’t get near someone who has them or you’ll get them.
“I was at your house and some lice jumped on me while I was there.”
Here’s a fun myth.
Lice have no wings, and they don’t hop or jump. If you’re wondering how far lice can jump, the answer is that they can’t.
So the only way for them to get from one patch of thick, warm hair and go to another patch of thick, warm hair is for those two patches of hair to be in close contact.
Watch any group of toddlers playing and you’ll see plenty of chances for lice to crawl from one head to another. And then the little ones pass the lice along to unsuspecting but loving parents.
The other way you can get lice is by sharing combs or hats, something else children love to do.
So if someone accuses you of giving them lice when they came in your house, you can tell them with confidence that that’s not how it works.
Lice are incredibly contagious.
Not so much.
Head and pubic lice are actually REALLY hard to get – as long as you’re not canoodling with someone who is infested or otherwise putting your warm patch of hair next to their warm patch of hair. Basically, you need head-to-head contact or naked body contact.
Yes, they can travel on a comb, hat or pillow, as I mentioned before, but they remain alive less than a day on these items.
You honestly can not get lice by shaking hands, talking to someone, sitting next to them, or coming into their home.
Hair to hair contact.
That’s why it’s possible for only one person in a household to get lice.
Again, body lice are a different critter. If you’re living in a homeless shelter, bathing once a year and wearing the same filthy clothes daily, you probably do have body lice.
Maybe They Came From the Cat
Don’t go blaming the cat for your lice!
Human head lice feed on human blood, and they are adapted to need human blood.
If they accidentally crawl onto the cat and try to live on his blood, they’ll die.
Basically, lice are a species-specific parasite. You can’t get lice from the cat or dog, and they can’t get them from you.
They’ll make you ill. They carry disease. You can die from lice.
Okay, as gross as they are, and as uncomfortable as that itching is, head 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.
<Insert household item> will get rid of them
This is called suffocation treatment.
Lice have tiny openings in their thorax called spiracles. Suffocation methods work by stuffing up those spiracles so that the lice can’t breathe. Mayonnaise, Vaseline and olive oil are the most commonly used items.
The problem is that you can’t see the spiracles so you can’t tell if it’s working. And it’s incredibly messy and gross. AND …. it doesn’t kill the nits at all, you’re still going to have to do it multiple times. And comb, comb, comb.
There is one possible exception to this – diatomaceous earth. I tell you more about this amazing, ultimate insect killer over here. It’s completely natural and yes, it does work as a natural head lice treatment.
Combing kills lice by breaking their legs and preventing them from breeding
A lice and nit comb is NOT going to leave your head full of tiny little crippled lice.
Combing helps to remove them and makes it easier to find them, and it’s honestly the ONLY 100% effective way to get rid of lice.
Shampoos help, even messy homemade products can help, but there’s no quick and easy solution.
You need to comb.
And for quite a while. (According to my mom, you basically start when the eldest starts school and stop when the youngest graduates, and that way you catch them before an infestation settles in!)
It’s easy to tell the difference between lice and dandruff
When we were dealing with the lice our daughter brought home, we kept testing that theory. Could we tell the difference?
Even with the little magnifying glass, it’s almost impossible. Dandruff and nits are pretty much identical.
That’s why it’s easy to miss an infestation until the frenzied scratching begins.
Here’s how to tell.
Lice eggs (nits) are firmly attached to the hair shaft with a cement-like substance. They do not brush off.
Dandruff is not attached to the hair and brushes off easily.
Live lice eggs are gray or caramel-coloured. When they have hatched and are empty, they turn yellowish or white.
And as for the adult lice?
Well, they have legs.
“Dandruff. It’s just dandruff …. oh, it’s crawling. We’ve got a live one!”
So if your dandruff is trying to crawl off the lice and nit comb, you have lice, and dandruff shampoo won’t help!
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.
While they have tiny claws, those are intended to hold onto a hair shaft, not a sweater. Once removed from a human host, they have a lot of difficulty getting back, and are far more likely to die.
If you feel like doing it, vacuum sofas and mattresses. It’s a good habit to get into it, after all. And while you’re at it, treat surfaces with a mixture of 1 cup baking soda, 5 drops tea tree oil and 5 drops lavender.
If you’re concerned about lice clinging to bedding and getting passed along, hang it in the sun for a few days, or pack them into garbage bags and place out in the sun for a few days, or toss them in the dryer for twenty minutes. Adding tea tree oil and lavender to your dryer balls is a good idea, too.
It never hurts to get all of the bedding aired and if it makes you feel like you’re doing something useful, go ahead.
But if you can’t get it all done, please don’t panic.
Lice have actually been found in the pillows of less than 5% of infected people.
They’d prefer to use their tiny little claws and hold onto your hair, because falling onto the pillow almost certainly means death.
Want the very best way to deal with an infestation?
Treat anyone who is affected by washing well with lice shampoo, or give anyone a buzz cut if they’re willing to go hairless.
Anyone who is not affected, cover their hair and keep it isolated. (‘IT’ being their hair – no head-to-head contact)
That’s what we did – EJ and the children all got buzz cuts, since the girls were too little to use the chemical head lice treatment, and I kept my hair tightly covered and away from everyone else.
Then go away!
Leave the house for three days, and take your lice combs with you. Go to a hotel, or grab your tent and go camping. Comb, comb, comb, and make sure to get any remaining lice out of your head.
After 55 hours without people in the house, all lice in your bedding, hats, etc., will be dead. Now you just need to worry about combing twice a day to remove all baby lice as they hatch.
Definitely treat everyone in the household
Let’s not create lice that are resistant to all treatments.
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. If you can see legs in your magnifying glass, but it’s not crawling, it’s dead. Doesn’t count.
Comb with a lice and nit comb and watch for dandruff that starts crawling off the comb. If you’re going to treat with shampoo, that’s the person who needs it.
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.
Also remember that you can’t use lice shampoo on children under the age of two, and some people might have sensitive skin or an allergic reaction.
Lice shampoo kills lice immediately
It can take several hours or even a few days to kill all of them after a shampoo treatment.
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 falls out or is cut.
Keep your child home if you find lice in their hair
That used to be the rule, and children would sometimes miss a lot of class time because of it.
Today most schools have changed their policy.
Children are most likely to have picked up the lice at school in the first place. More importantly, though, they can have lice for several weeks before anyone notices. And after that, it might take several weeks to fully eradicate them!
Now most schools have a policy that head lice are not a reason to miss school.
Of course, your school would really appreciate a heads up. In return, they’ll send a discreet notice to everyone in the school that “head lice have been found in the school population”. I think we get three or four of these notices a year!
If your child has head lice, you can pretty much guarantee that other children at the school have them, too.
Let the school know that you found lice and tell them what you’re doing for treatment, and remind your child to keep their hats and combs to themselves.
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.