The latest visitor in our house has been a most unwelcome one. This particular visitor (actually plural) hitched a ride home on my daughter’s hair. Yep it is that most unwelcome intrusion into many parent’s life. Head lice. Shudder. It is not that I shudder at the idea of head lice per se, it is more the knowledge that now I have to spend hours nitpicking through my daughter’s long hair and then washing every single little thing that might have head contact with her hair or head every time we find more lice. And you are usually looking at 2 to 2 weeks to clear up the infestation of the most unwelcome visitor. You see lice seem to love children and they love when many children are in small confined spaces at the same time, especially when they are physically close, maybe ones head on another's shoulder, huddling together, sharing secrets. This is a very attractive environment for the spreading of lice. Lice love children's warm scalps. They don't discriminate according to hair colour, hygiene standards or economic measures. However, research has shown that girls are more prone to lice infestations, possibly because of longer hair and more close physical contact. Oh the joy of having a daughter who is wedded to long hair. Actually now I look at it in a different way. Instead of bemoaning the time needing, I look at it as a wonderful way to be close and bond. There won't be so much time left for that as she grows up.
Head lice need a warm environment and a blood source to thrive. Lice or Pediculus capitis live on scalps and suck blood from the scalp. A female louse lays up to 6 eggs a day and it takes these eggs around 6-10 days to hatch. The eggs attach themselves to a few millimetres from the start of the hair shaft with a glue-like substance, very difficult to get off. They are white, grey, creamy or light brown in colour and so are not easily seen. They live around 4 weeks and when they hatch, theoretically they can move from the host’s hair to anything which has contact with their hair, hats, towels, sheets, brushes, scarves, chairs, toys they sleep with, etc, although it is good to know that they cannot live for more than 24 hours without a source of blood/warmth. It is a good idea to wash all of these things at a high heat (55 degrees celsius) to get rid of these pests even if the likelihood of them surviving is minimal. All hair which has contact with the infected items are also susceptible to a lice infection or reinfection. Head and hair contact is the most common way that lice can move from one host to another. They do not have wings, nor can they jump. They are not dangerous and they do not harbour or spread diseases but they are a pest (pardon the pun) to get out of the hair, and they cause a huge disruption to your daily routine, combing the lice out, treating the hair, washing the treatment out of the hair, not to mention gathering all the infected items and washing and disinfecting them. They also make your child’s scalp itchy and that scratching could lead to a worse situation with infection and inflammation.
So how do you know that you child has lice? The first sign that you may notice is the scratching, but if you happen to examine your child's scalp you may see redness in the scalp especially behind the ears and the nape of the neck. That is often where you will find the lice themselves as well. The eggs stick onto the hair shaft close to the scalp and the lice themselves are just found on the scalp or in the hair. Without putting something into the hair it is almost impossible to remove the eggs as they are stuck onto the hair shaft with a glue-like substance. It is also difficult to find the lice. In my 10 years of parenting as well as an aromatherapist, I have seen many cases of head lice and I have been rather successful in the eradication of head lice with natural treatments only. So l have set out the steps of natural treatment below so you can follow easily.
Before we look at the actual treatment, let’s just talk about what to do the treatment with. You can buy many remedies at the local chemist. Some are chemical some are natural. I would recommend the natural ones. Many lice have actually become resistant (thanks to their clever evolutionary tactics) to the chemical treatments in most of the westernised world. But there is not only the resistance that these clever little creatures have developed, but there is also the effect of the chemicals on your child. Lice treatments usually contain insecticides such as DEET, permethrin, pyrethin or other chemicals. These chemicals are toxic and have neurotoxic effects. If you are concerned about using such chemicals on your child’s head, you might want to consider using milder and natural substances such as essential oils and apple cider vinegar. Essential oils that have been shown in research to be effective at killing lice include kunzea oil (Kunzea ambigua), tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia), nerolidol which is a major component of nerolina (Melaleuca quinquinervia CT Nerolina) essential oil, eucalyptus oil, lemon tea tree oil (Leptospermum petersonii), lavender essential oil (although not as effective as the preceeding essential oils), clove bud oil (less suitable for sensitive skin) and the good oil, but rather smelly, neem oil. The essential oils and neem oil work to kill the lice and the eggs. The appple cider vinegar works to unstick the eggs from the hair. There are also other research studies which show that the direct blowing of hot air for 30 minutes onto the hair with a patented machine also kills lice by dehydrating them.
Steps for how to get rid of lice
- Take 1 tablespoon (20mL) of organic sesame or coconut oil (those who are okay with the smell can add 5ml of neem oil to this mixture) and mix 8 drops of tea tree essential oil and 8 drops of nerolina or kunzea essential oil. This could also be done with a 50% mixture of apple cider vinegar and water if you really don’t want to put oil on your child’s hair. Mix this up and distribute it evenly throughout the hair and leave for a few hours. Wrap the hair with plastic wrap or a shower cap. This helps to increase the absorbency of the oils.
- Comb through the hair with a special lice comb, sectioning the hair, and combing through each section at least 4 times. Do it in very good light so that you can see whether there are any eggs attached to the hair shaft (remember that the eggs are located very close to the scalp). Sometimes even a very close tooth lice comb can miss the eggs so sometimes removal with your nail/hand may be necessary. After each combing wipe the comb on paper towel or white cloth, so that you can see if the lice and eggs have been removed.
- Wash the oils out of the hair with a large amount of shampoo. If necessary shampoo twice, so that the hair does not appear oily afterwards.
- Rinse the hair with a 25% solution of apple cider vinegar and 75% water with 2 drops of tea tree essential oil, rub into the hair and then wash out after a couple of minutes.
- Dry the hair with a har dryer.
- Every day before your child goes to school, spray their hair with 1-2% tea tree essential oil diluted in water, or if your child wears a head band or hair tie drop a couple of drops of tea tree essential oil on to that for prevention.
- Check every couple of days for any more lice.
- Treat repeating the same steps unless you are absolutely sure there are no lice remaining.
Various studies have shown the efficacy of tea tree oil. In one study, it was found that head lice can be killed by tea tree essential oil because of the contact of the oil (in dilution) with the cuticles of their body and by absorption of the vapours. It was found that a 1% oil dilution killed the lice within 30 mins and a 2% dilution prevented 50% of the eggs from hatching in 4 days and 100% from hatching within 12 days. A slightly higher dilution of 4% had prevented all eggs from hatching within 10 days (2012, Di Campi et al.). Another study has found 5% of kunzea essential oil to be as effective as 5% of tea tree oil. Other studies have found lavender oil (Lavandula officinalis) to be quite effective. One study found 11% of eucalyptus oil (type not revealed in the study) combined with 1% lemon tea tree essential oil. Another study has found neem oil to be effective. Other oils which have been found to be effective against lice are not very gentle oils and can not be recommended for use with children. These include clove, cinnamon leaf, oregano and thyme essential oils. Tea tree, kunzea, nerolina and lavender essential oils are gentle enough to be used with children and even toddlers.
Happy lice free days!