Any parent who has a child at school will know (or will soon know!) the sheer frustration that can come with treating a head lice infestation.
Even if your child hasn’t yet had a case of head lice (also called nits), it’s usually a ticking time bomb which is very hard to escape.
Some hairdressers I’ve spoken to report seeing head lice on every third or fourth child who comes in! So you’re definitely not alone if you’re battling these pesky little insects.
Head lice infestation
Head lice is on the increase and is becoming resistant to some treatments. So it’s best to be prepared and focus on prevention, rather than desperately looking for a treatment when it’s too late (and for some reason, you can’t stop itching!).
Head lice are well known for inhabiting the scalp, yet they can also be found in the eyebrows or eyelashes.
Head lice symptoms
It’s estimated that less than half of those with head lice actually display any symptoms.
Persistent itching is the main symptom of head lice. When head lice bite, it can itch and sometimes irritate the scalp.
The itching tends to be focused around the warmer areas of the head – behind the ears, the back of the neck and the crown. However, many people with head lice will have no itchiness at all.
Head lice cannot carry or spread disease – a case of nits has nothing to do with hygiene, cleanliness or disease.
What does head lice look like?
Head lice are tiny wingless insects which are whitish-brown in colour. They have six legs and are no bigger than a sesame seed when fully grown (from about 1-4mm long). Females are bigger than males.
A case of head lice can be confirmed by finding eggs in the person’s hair – tiny, off-white, oval shaped eggs, which are firmly attached to the hair shaft and sit at angle. Head lice stay close to the scalp and tend to stay within half an inch away.
Below is an enlarged image of what head lice (louse) looks like.
Head lice pictures
Below are some head lice pictures to help you identify if your child has lice.
Here is the first thing you’ll tend to notice when a child has head lice – eggs – which are no bigger than a pinhead.
Head lice vs dandruff
Looking at the pictures above, understandably, you might think head lice looks a lot like flakes of dandruff.
So how can you tell the difference between the two?
If you remove what you think is an egg from the hair, and it can be flicked or blown off, or if it crumbles between your fingers, it’s not an egg. Nits are attached with a glue-like substance and hang on well.
How do you get head lice?
Head lice is most common amongst school-aged children, from about 4-11 years of age. Some studies have found it to be more common in girls.
The vast majority of head lice cases are caused by direct head-to-head or hair-to-hair contact, which tends to happen when young children play together. Unfortunately they can then come home and have the same contact with family members, quickly spreading the head lice infestation to other family members.
Other ways include sharing items which touch the hair, including brushes, hats or combs.
You cannot get head lice simply by sitting next to someone – your head or hair must be touching to allow the lice to crawl across to you.
Head lice life cycle
Head lice have a very short life, living for 32-35 days.
They start to reproduce around day 17-18.
Eggs are laid around two days after mating, and a female will lay 4-8 eggs for the next 16 days or so, before dying.
Breaking this cycle is the key.
Do head lice jump?
No. Head lice don’t have knees or wings, so they can’t jump or fly.
The only way they are spread is through direct head to head contact, which commonly occurs when young children play together.
Make sure you reiterate to your children the importance of keeping their head away from other kids heads. When children are young and get excited and distracted by play, it can be easy to forget.
What are lice attracted to? Do they prefer clean or dirty hair?
Lice are attracted to hair! No matter if it’s clean hair, dirty hair, short hair or long hair… head lice just want a warm cosy home with easy access to blood and they’re happy.
The only truth behind this hair preference debate is that over-washing can result in the stripping of natural oils from hair. Therefore, this makes it easier for the lice to attach. But lice are opportunists, unwashed hair is not enough to stop them!
Can head lice live on pillows and sheets?
No, head lice cannot live on pillows and sheets. You don’t need to panic and go crazy cleaning your home, because without ready access to a supply of blood from the scalp, head lice will die very quickly.
Popping pillowcases or sheets in a dryer for about 20 minutes will kill head lice, but it’s unlikely any lice or eggs that have fallen off overnight will survive without being on the host’s head.
Eggs need warmth in order to hatch. This is why they’re stuck with a glue-like substance to the hair, as close to the scalp as possible. Head lice will die if they don’t get a meal within 45 minutes of hatching. Once hatched, they will feed 3-4 times a day.
Without access to blood, head lice can dehydrate in as little as 6 hours, and up to 48 hours, depending on your climate.
Will washing hair kill lice?
Washing hair with regular shampoo will not prevent nor get rid of head lice. Head lice breathe through holes in their body (called spiracles) and they are able to shut these down for some time during washing, swimming or whenever they need to protect themselves. This is why most treatments require a period of time to be left in the hair.
Head lice prevention tips
The most important things to remember in order to prevent head lice are:
1. If your child has long hair, tie it up for school every day (plaits or braids are great) and if you like, spray their hair with hairspray. Many mothers swear by hairspray – after you’ve tied up your child’s hair, keeping it under control with hairspray seems to help.
2. For long or short hair, encourage wearing a hat to protect their hair from coming into contact with others.
3. You can buy (or make your own) head lice resister sprays which you can spray into their hair and inside their hats. Most of the sprays have essential oils – mainly tea tree, eucalyptus, geranium and lavender – which lice don’t like. It’s an effective repellant.
4. Make absolutely sure that you follow any treatment program as per the instructions. No treatment exists that kills both the head lice AND the eggs in one go. Repeating a treatment is always needed because the live lice die, but the eggs in your child’s hair will hatch soon after, so you need to make sure you get them out before they are old enough to reproduce – around 7-10 days is a good time to repeat a treatment.
4. Use tea tree shampoo and/or conditioner for washing your children’s hair. Check out the different options available which vary in price, as well as the amounts of oils in each product. You may be able to find a better range at your pharmacy or variety store.
5. Make sure you check yourself and your partner for head lice. Kids love to be up close to your face and hair, especially when they snuggle, so you may have transmitted head lice between you before you realised head lice was around. The last thing you want is to have your children head lice free, but then someone else passes it back to them. Some mothers who colour their hair find that their hair colour treatment kills the head lice. Similarly with those who straighten their hair with a straightener – the heat kills the lice and eggs.
Head lice treatments – how to get rid of head lice
There are so many products on the market, it can be very confusing. Because lice are so stubborn and can take time to remove, you may be concerned about the chemical content of removal products – especially if you’re using them repeatedly.
Home remedies for head lice
In my own personal experience, natural home remedies for head lice were very effective – even with the trickiest of hair. You might feel faced with an overwhelming task, but I promise, you can get on top of it no matter what you’re faced with!
My eldest daughter is blessed with Mediterranean goddess-like wavy dark hair. But unfortunately for her, lice had loads of fun playing hide and seek with that gorgeous thick, long hair. But we got rid of them fast.
Our tried and trusted method is the conditioner and comb method. Here’s what we did:
- Bought a huge bottle of cheap conditioner and a metal lice comb (with teeth 0.2 to 0.3mm apart)
- Got the kids in the shower (you could do this in the bath), one by one, and soaked their hair and scalp with lots of conditioner
- Because the head lice became immobilised with the oily, slippery conditioner, they became easy to remove
- Thoroughly combed all of their hair with a nit comb, until no more nits came out in the comb (I wiped the comb on a paper towel in-between)
- Repeated this process every two days for two weeks to make sure I caught all the newly hatching lice
- Because I was extra paranoid, I had them do this process every couple of weeks after we stopped seeing any lice on the comb, but after a couple of months I forgot about it.
It’s been 10 years since doing this with the kids, and nits has not been back in our home since. So it definitely worked for us, without any harsh or nasty chemicals.
Chemical treatments aren’t designed to be used over and over again. If your child(ren) still have head lice after repeating the treatment, try something else rather than expose them to more chemicals. Unfortunately head lice are becoming resistant to the pesticides we are using. There are many natural options that work very well.
Does tea tree oil kill lice?
A popular natural remedy for killing head lice is tea tree oil. So what does the science say… does tea tree oil kill head lice?
According to a study, researchers tested two natural products, tea tree oil and nerolidol, to see if they worked to kill head lice. They tested the products at various concentrations, used alone or combined in ratios, against both lice and their eggs. They found, “In particular, tea tree oil needed the shortest time (30 min) until all lice were killed at 1% concentration, whereas the most effective oil for killing louse eggs appeared to be nerolidol that provided the 75% abortive eggs 5 days after treatment.”
If you want to make your own lice repelling shampoo, you can add the following ingredients to a normal shampoo bottle: 1 tsp of tea tree oil and 1 tsp of rosemary or eucalyptus oil. Please use eucalyptus oil with extra care, making sure your children don’t get it in their mouth or eyes.
Do hair straighteners kill nits?
You might have heard hair straighteners can kill nits. This is true, the heat of a straightener will definitely kill head lice.
However, because head lice like to live very close to the scalp, the chances are you won’t be able to get to all of them. It’s difficult to get a hair straightener very close to the scalp, and it may get too hot for the child’s head anyway.
Can dogs get head lice?
Pets do not transmit head lice, nor are nits spread via swimming pools (they do not swim).
Head lice do not exist anywhere in the environment except for the human head.
Head lice home treatments – parent tips
To see if other parents found the same, I asked what natural home remedies worked for them in the race to beat these frustrating little insects which reproduce like rabbits!
Here’s what some of them had to say about the best way to get rid of head lice:
“Coat the scalp with oil (olive oil works well). You can add peppermint or tea tree oil which speeds up their respiration, which makes them breathe in the oil faster. The oil causes them to suffocate (my husband is an entomologist).” — Shawnna
“White vinegar (neat, not diluted)! Lay her down on the ground with a towel rolled under her head, another covering the floor. Put her hair in a big bowl and pour the vinegar over her. Get her to lay there for a few minutes (the vinegar dissolves the egg’s glue) the use some (LOTS) conditioner to comb with nit comb, ending in the bowl so you collect them all. She will hate it, it will stink, but you will only need to do it once if you do it thoroughly. Maybe give her a rolled up face washer to hold over her eyes too, so you can really pour it all the way up to the top.That is the only thing that ever worked here, good luck.”
“Vinegar and olive oil is one option, but vinegar may sting the scalp. Alternatively, use conditioner and comb out in tiny sections in good light, rinse then do it again, you need to make sure that you pick out all the eggs or they come back in a few days.” — Kim
“Cheap conditioner… Makes the combing pretty easy too. Did have success with an orange oil based treatment.” — Diane
“I spoke to someone once who had some foster kids arrive with masses of them and she swore by thick conditioner and a metal nit comb.” — Kristy
“I second conditioner. Suffocates them but also makes it really easy to pull the lice comb through the hair.” — Cassandra
“I have been dealing with head lice for 12 years, first with my own daughter and now that I work with young children. We use a product which has essential oils, comes with a lovely green shower cap and only stays in for 10 minutes – great stuff. You need to repeat the treatment every 7 days, and I do that for at least 3 treatment to make sure I really break the cycle. I also make a up a water spray bottle with tea-tree, lavender and peppermint, and spray it on their hair, hats, brushes and combs every day (especially for school).” — Shantell
“Thick conditioner with tea tree oil added (generous amount). Apply to dry hair. Make sure it is fully saturated then put a shower cap on for an hour. Comb through with a nit comb. Always works for me and i have 3 girls with think long hair. The more conditioner the easier it is to comb, kills all the bugs. Never had a crawling one yet and gives their hair a great treatment too. It will be so shiny afterwards!” — Melinda
“Once the lice are gone, washing (or however you want to get the essential oil on the scalp) with rosemary will help with preventing lice.” — Aimee
“Conditioner. We had a lice issue for about 2 years (a couple of kids in my daughter’s class that were never properly treated) and I just combed her hair every day with conditioner as soon as she got home from school. I’d only get a handful of massive adult lice, fresh from someone else’s head (every day). As soon as you are getting baby ones too you know they are breeding.” — Robyn
“This isn’t very earth friendly but my mom used to put hairspray in our hair before we went to school to PREVENT us from getting it again…i guess the lice don’t like the taste of hairspray so the don’t stay in hair that has it.” — Kimra
“Half a bottle of detangler and a comb, an hour in the tub – I believe in the mechanical (and yes essential oils when that’s finished).” — Sandra
“I have three girls with long thick hair, plus three boys. When they were all in primary school, head lice checks and treatment became a normal thing we did every Friday. If I didn’t schedule it in, it was a nightmare. You have to break the lifecycle by removing all the eggs, or nothing will work and they will be re-infested. Tea tree oil works to kill the live lice, but you must comb the eggs out with a metal toothed comb. Use lots of white conditioner so that you can see the eggs easily. Section the hair off and start with the back of the neck and work your way up. Most people don’t get all the eggs because they don’t section off the hair and work systematically, so stuff gets missed.” — Priscilla
“I swear by tea tree shampoo. My kids have not had them since using that shampoo regularly.” — Kathryn
“We used vinegar mixed with warm water (a third vinegar, 2 thirds water), in a spray bottle. Wrap the hair in cling wrap for half an hour. Into the shower, rinse their hair. Conditioner with a few drop of tea tree in it, comb through the hair with a good quality metal comb before you wash the conditioner out. Blast with a hairdryer too… any remaining one should be killed off by the heat. Repeat every couple of days, just to be sure you got them all.” — Elocin
“I have an electric comb that you run through their hair and it zaps them, works great.” — familyof3
“I use the comb and conditioner first then rinsing with vinegar. Tea tree oil in a spray bottle works a treat to keep them away.” — dianescruffy
“So far, the conditioner method has worked best for us. Get some thick conditioner (I use some of the cheaper ones as you use HEAPS) and spread liberally through dry hair. Leave for about an hour then comb out with a nit comb, dunking the comb after every pass into a container of hot water with a good splash of vinegar. Laugh like a maniac as the little buggers twitch and die in the container. Rinse and repeat every day until they’re gone.” — Cranky Kitten
Some Important Points…
1. The olive oil ‘smothering’ technique does work well – it has been proven in lab tests to kill head lice. However make sure you choose olive oil and not other oils because mineral oils or baby oils are not good for skin. All you need is a cheap olive oil and layer it on, placing a shower cap over the hair to prevent any mess. One thing to note though is head lice are able to shut down their system for hours – so you really want to do this treatment overnight if you can, in order to get the best result. When it’s done, simply comb out the dead lice and you may like to wash it out with tea tree shampoo.
2. Chemical treatments aren’t designed to be used over and over again. If your child(ren) still have head lice after repeating the treatment, try something else rather than expose them to more chemicals. Unfortunately head lice are becoming resistant to the pesticides we are using. There are many natural options that work very well.
Feeling embarrassed that your child has lice?
As a parent, you might feel embarrassed, anxious or ashamed about having head lice in your home.
No-one benefits when you feeling bad about these things – heck, even hairdressers have told me of their own struggles battling head lice with their children.
If you manage to escape head lice for your children’s entire schooling life, you would be a rare case! You are most definitely not alone battling these pesky little persistent insects.
REMEMBER: If your or another child has head lice, it’s not the result of poor hygiene, disease or anything of the sort. It’s just another school years rite of passage which will pass once they get older, and are able to learn to keep their heads away from other kids.
Is it possible to eradicate head lice forever?
Head lice can be stubborn to treat, even for someone as vigilant as a hairdresser. So you can do your best, but sometimes it’s just going to require persistence and patience… but most of all prevention.
It’s impossible to completely eradicate head lice from existence, because they learn to adapt to their environment and become resistant to chemical treatments. Accepting head lice are likely to be found in your child’s hair at some point in their school life is going to be less stressful for everyone. With a good management plan, you’ll be much less stressed and be able to deal with it quickly when it happens.
So, did you start itching or was it just me?
Recommended reading: Why can’t my kid sit still? Expert shares reason why kids fidget