How to Prevent and Deal with Head Lice

There is one thing that is, unfortunately, almost inevitable in the first few weeks of the new school year - head lice.  And dealing with these pesky beasties can be an absolute nightmare.  Read on for some tips that will hopefully help to banish the little critters - for good.

Head lice are tiny insects that live in human hair.  Commonly referred to as nits, the nits are actually  the empty egg cases that head lice hatch from which remain attached to the hair.  They are often appear visible as creamy white against darker hair.

Head lice are a common problem, particularly in school children aged 4-11.  They're largely harmless, but can live in the hair for a long time if not treated, and can be extremely irritating and itchy, not to mention frustrating to deal with!

How to Prevent Head Lice

We parents dread the return of itchy heads and the constant battle to keep nits and head lice at bay.  Head lice are everywhere.  If you have kids and they are around other kids, they are at risk of getting head lice.  But there are some things you can do to prevent children catching head lice in the first place.

1. Avoid head-to-head (hair-to-hair) contact

Contrary to popular belief, head lice don't jump from one head to another, nor can they fly.  In fact, the main way head lice are passed on is through direct head to head (or hair to hair) contact.

This can easily happen when children are working together at desks, during playground games, sharing hairbrushes, taking selfies with friends, or during sports activities.  Ask children to avoid head to head contact as much as possible.

2. Tie long hair up

Head lice don't have a preference for dirty, clean, short or long hair.  But if your child does have long hair, it is more likely to come into contact with others' hair.  So one of the best ways to avoid catching lice is by keeping your little one’s hair tied up in a ponytail, plait or bun.

3. Don't share

Much less often head lice may be spread by children sharing clothing or belongings onto which lice have crawled or nits attached to shed hairs may have fallen.

Yep, away from hair, those ghastly critters can live for up to 12-24 hours.  Yuck!  Tell children never to share hats, scarves, hoodies, dressing up clothes and headgear, headphones and earbuds, combs, hairbrushes or hair bands, hair clips, ribbons etc.

4. Safe sleepovers

If there is an outbreak of head lice at your child's school, say no to sleepovers for a while.  Only allow sleepovers 48 hours after treatment and when no living lice have been seen.  Even if no outbreak is known about, it makes sense to arrange the sleepover kids in a flower or star pattern with their feet together in the centre to avoid head to head contact.

5. Preventive shampoo

Lice are repelled by certain smells such as tea tree, menthol, eucalyptus, lavender, rosemary, lemongrass and citronella.  Choose a shampoo with any of these scents for added protection.

6. Essential oils

Some people swear by using coconut oil, tea tree oil or lavender oil for prevention, but the oils themselves are more likely to help.  Mix a few drops of essential oil with water in a spray bottle and spritz hair to ward off lice.

Tea tree, eucalyptus, lavender, rosemary, and lemongrass oils are all effective.  In trials tea tree and peppermint oil have been shown to be the most effective treatments for repelling lice.

7. Coconut oil

Combing and conditioning are the two key steps towards clean, lice-free hair.  Infestation often occurs because parents are unaware that eggs and lice have been transferred to their child’s head. Regular combing with coconut oil and a fine-tooth comb can help to prevent breakouts.  Add a few drops of essential oils for extra protection.

A preventive spray made with 250ml liquid coconut oil and 5 drops each of lavender, tea tree, and lemongrass essential oils can be applied daily to help prevent the spread of head lice.  Or you could try this ready-made preventive spray.

How to Detect Head Lice

Head lice can be difficult to spot so it’s best to carry out a full hair inspection under good lighting on a regular basis.  Look for the white dot nits (the eggs) which are easier to spot.

Lice are tiny and fast, so you are more likely to spot an infestation by the presence of nits. These lice eggs are attached to strands of hair and are often easier to spot.  They are characteristically difficult to remove with your fingers as they stick to the hair shaft.  If they are easily removed, it’s probably just dandruff or fluff/dust.

Head lice are very small whitish or grey-brown insects that range from the size of a pinhead to the size of a sesame seed.  The only way to be sure someone has head lice is to find a live louse by combing their hair with a special fine-toothed comb.

The best way to do this is to apply a generous amount of hair conditioner (any brand), then comb through the hair with a nit comb.  The conditioner makes the lice immobile allowing you to find them more easily.  Use a very fine toothed comb to go through the hair, wiping it regularly on a tissue so you can check for lice and their eggs.

Regular detection combing like this is advisable, for example on a weekly basis.  But do not treat with head lice medication unless live lice have been detected.  These lotions and sprays don't prevent head lice and over-use will mean they become ineffective in the long term.

Check your child's hair weekly, closely examining the hair line, parting the top of the head, and looking at the nape of the neck and behind the ears.  A rash on the back of the neck may also indicate the presence of head lice.  However, it can take up to 6 weeks to experience itching, so don't rely on this alone to tell you there is an infestation.

Children do not need to stay off school when head lice have been detected.

How to Treat a Head Lice Infestation

So what can you do when head lice are detected?

Treat head lice as soon as you spot them, and for all members of the family who are affected.  Wet combing with a nit comb as described for detection above can be effective if done daily to remove both live lice and their eggs.  Wet combing should be done on days 1, 5, 9 and 13 to catch any newly hatched head lice. Check again that everyone's hair is free of lice on day 17.

However, an over the counter head lice treatment may be quicker and more efficient, or necessary if wet combing hasn't worked.  Take advice from your pharmacist about which treatment is the most effective, as they may know about the current infestation and what is working most effectively against this batch of lice.

Be sure to seek extra advice before using treatments on pregnant or breastfeeding women, children under 2 years old and anyone with sensitive skin or dermatitis.

A number of head lice treatments are available without prescription.  Make sure to follow the directions on the packaging to the letter.  Leaving a treatment on for longer won't be more effective and could cause harm to the skin.

Re-treatment after 7 to 10 days is necessary because lice in unhatched eggs may not be killed by the first treatment.  If head lice are still detected after the second treatment, try another technique or another chemical treatment using a different active ingredient.  If infestations persist despite correct insecticide use, seek medical advice on alternative methods of treatment.

Tea tree or lavender oil may be as effective as chemical treatments.  One study found that nearly all children who were treated with a tea tree and lavender product were free of lice, while only a quarter of kids treated with pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide (common ingredients in anti-lice shampoos) were lice free.

Treating Your Home After a Head Lice Infestation

The risk of getting infested by a louse that has fallen onto a carpet or furniture is very small.  Head lice survive less than 1–2 days if they fall off a person and cannot feed.  Nits cannot hatch and usually die within a week if they are not kept at the same temperature as that found close to the scalp.

There is no need to use anything extreme (and potentially harmful) like pest sprays or bug bombs, but do wash bedding on a hot wash to be on the safe side.  Vacuum as normal and wash other items such as cuddly toys as necessary.  15 minutes in a hot dryer should effectively kill lice and nits on items you cannot wash.

Disinfect combs and brushes used by someone with head lice by soaking them in hot water for 5–10 minutes.  Head lice only affect people and can't be caught from or passed on to animals.

All other members of the household, adult and child, should be examined for head lice and treated as necessary.  If you co-parent and your child has two homes, remember to inform everyone there too.

Pin it:

We may earn a small commission for products purchased through links in this article.