Rachael Rachael, a mom of two daughters, is a freelance editor and writer who enjoys gardening and dreams of keeping chickens in her suburban St. Louis backyard. In her spare time, she helps to edit her husband’s science fiction books. Read more of Rachael's work at www.rachaelsjohnston.com or contact her by emailing rachael@mumblingmommy.com.

Here’s how to get rid of lice, one step at a time.

It takes time to get your bearings after you learn your child has lice. It’s overwhelming. There’s so much to learn: the difference between full-grown bugs, nymphs, and those nefarious eggs. There’s so much to do at once and different ideas about what you should do: pesticide scalp treatments, intimidating-sounding comb-out sessions, laundry, vacuuming, bagging stuffed animals, boiling hair brushes and pony tail holders.

Once you get an infestation under control, you feel shell shocked. Your life has changed with the knowledge that your child is just one school coat cubby mate away from picking up the bugs again. You’re ready to buy the tea tree oil your friends are recommending, and you vow to never send your children to school again without putting their hair up in ponytails or braids. Ever!

Our family had its first encounter with lice almost two months ago.

I discovered adult bugs along my 7-year-old daughter’s hairline near her forehead while helping her rinse during a shower one evening. A quick check of the rest of her head revealed more bugs. I had never seen lice before and asked my husband to Google images of them. Once we knew who the enemy was, my husband Googled treatment options and immediately headed out to pick up a box of Nix at the drugstore. We soon learned two other girls in my daughter’s class at school had lice, so we knew where she picked them up.

Plenty has been said on Mumbling Mommy about lice. Writer Katie, her husband, and four of their children battled the bugs last year, and she chronicled their struggle. I frantically texted her the night we found the bugs, and I found her posts helpful. What follows are some of my own reflections and advice, learned through trial and error.

What Not to Do to Get Rid of Lice

We learned some misleading advertising and misinformation exist regarding over-the-counter lice treatments, and even trusted medical websites recommend these over-the-counter treatments as the first course of action. The OTC product we used, Nix, for example, claims to kill live bugs and the eggs (also called nits), but less than two days after treatment I spotted tiny newly hatched bugs crawling on top of my daughter’s head. Obviously, Nix didn’t kill the eggs. Despite their claims that their product does kill eggs, Nix recommends retreating seven days later to remove any new hatchlings before they are old enough to start laying eggs, but in the meantime you are stuck with live baby lice that can spread, and you can’t send your kid back to school with live bugs.

In addition, many over-the-counter lice removal kits come with plastic combs to remove bugs and nits, but we learned that metal-toothed combs are more effective and durable.

And finally, some over-the-counter product makers recommend you buy their furniture spray to kill lice and eggs around the house, but experts advise against sprays because they are toxic. They claim vacuuming is safe and just as effective.

What You Should Do To Get Rid of Lice

Here’s what ended up working for our family: I got a prescription from our pediatrician for Spinosad for both of my daughters (I found a few small bugs on my almost-4-year-old, too, but we caught her case early.). I bought a set of metal lice combs at Walgreens for $10 and started doing daily combing sessions on both girls. (One of my college roommates recommended buying a comb in which “you can’t see the light of day between the teeth.”) We haven’t seen any bugs or nits for a long time, but I still run the comb through the girls’ hair periodically to make sure they don’t return. We also found information on the CDC’s website helpful.

Because you feel like you have to do a million things at once, here’s how I recommend prioritizing: The two most important things are to get a prescription and to comb daily, like a person with OCD. Then follow the other advice in this list. If you have a spouse or partner who can help you knock out tasks simultaneously, even better.

Here’s how to get rid of lice:

1. Call the doctor as soon as possible and get a prescription treatment that kills both bugs and eggs.

Katie also recommends going straight to the prescription. Prescriptions are more effective than over-the-counter formulas, and in our case, a prescription was $5 with insurance, while over-the-counter treatments were $10. Some families prefer not to use chemicals to treat lice, and it is possible to get rid of them without pesticides; it does take more work and time. If you opt to skip chemicals, go to step two.

2. Go immediately to the drugstore and buy a metal lice comb.

(Flea combs also work.) I bought a Walgreens brand comb. While you’re at the store, stock up on detangling spray or hair conditioner to make combing easier (More on this in step 3.). Also pick up laundry detergent if you want to wash all items your child’s head has contacted, although washing is optional and you can simply throw things in the dryer (More on this in step 4.). You can get rid of lice without going crazy from laundry.

3. Go home and start combing.

See here for instructions on how to comb lice and nits from hair or also here. You’ll want to comb daily or every other day for two or three weeks after you think you’ve gotten rid of the lice to be sure. It sounds daunting, and it can be time consuming, but I got more efficient with each combing session. If you have some movies, books, video games, and snacks around to keep the kids occupied while you comb, it can be sort of a therapeutic family time. It’s also gratifying to see the results of your work: doomed bugs caught in the teeth of your comb. This is perhaps the most important step to get rid of lice and keep them gone.

Some school districts (ours included) have a controversial no-nit policy that requires all dead eggs be picked out of your child’s hair before she can return. Combing will get rid of most, but you may have to pick some out by hand. Nits are easier to spot in dry hair, so do a separate check when hair is dry after a comb-out. Be sure to routinely check all other family members’ heads with the comb during and after a lice infestation.

4. Start washing recently worn clothing and bedding in hot water.

Make sure it’s at least 130 degrees, or if it makes life easier, you can simply put things in the dryer on a hot setting for 30 minutes. If something can’t be washed or put in the dryer, tie it up tightly in a trash bag or seal it in a Ziploc bag for two weeks until all bugs and eggs die. Don’t forget items like backpacks and purses, stuffed animals, and any throw blankets or pillows your family uses in the living room.

5. Vacuum all surfaces your child’s head has touched, but don’t obsess.

This includes couches and other upholstered furniture, rugs, and car seats. It’s questionable whether it’s necessary to throw away the vacuum bag afterward, since lice are only good at crawling around on human heads and not in vacuum cleaner nozzles. Getting rid of your vacuum bags won’t really help you get rid of lice. In fact, lice prefer human hair so much that they are unlikely to leave a person’s head and crawl onto furniture or clothing to hang out and wait for their next host, and eggs are cemented to hair and will not move to another person’s head.

So vacuuming is a precautionary measure to take after you’ve addressed your child’s head. The National Pediculosis Association says transmission via furniture and other items is much less likely than transmission via head-to-head contact, and that parents should focus their physical and emotional energy primarily on removing lice from the head rather than removing them from the home environment.

6. Boil hairbrushes, combs, ponytail holders, and barrettes.

Bag whatever can’t be washed. One of my friends put ponytail holders in the dryer, which also works.

7. Contact your child’s school so they can screen for other affected students and prevent lice from spreading.

Our school’s nurse found two other students in my daughter’s class with lice, and their siblings in other grades also had infestations. We also let our church friends and parents at my daughter’s gymnastics class know. Anyone your child spends time with, whether it’s a close neighborhood friend, other relatives, or a Girl Scout troop, should be given a head’s up. If you really want to get rid of lice for the long term, everyone who comes in contact with your kids needs to do a head check.

8. Get takeout for dinner because you’ll be too exhausted from combing and cleaning to cook.

Or, if you’re like our budget-conscious family, you’ll realize you could have bought a nice dinner with the money you spent on pesticide goo and combs, in addition to all that hot water for laundry. So you’ll save your remaining money and cobble together a dinner of frozen pizza and whatever leftovers you can find in the fridge. This tip may not help you directly get rid of lice, but it sure will save your sanity.

And may I suggest that if your friends’ kids ever have lice, it is totally a time when you can bring them a dinner? It’s like bringing a meal for someone with a new baby or someone who’s had surgery, except that you can drop it off on their front porch if you’re afraid to go in the house with the cooties. It will be appreciated by some stressed, busy parents!

9. After you no longer see lice, keep combing every few days for two to four weeks, and even after that, keep checking periodically with the comb.

You can check weekly or monthly to make sure a small problem doesn’t become a big problem. Especially check if you know other kids at school have lice.

I also recommend looking for children’s picture books about lice at your local library. Storybooks helped my daughters understand why we were slathering goo on their heads and combing their hair, and they learned they aren’t the only kids who have gotten lice. My daughters’ favorite book was Bugs in My Hair?! by Catherine Stier. They also liked What’s Bugging Nurse Penny?, also by Stier, in which the school nurse gets lice.

My daughters reading story books about lice.

And PLEASE talk about lice.

I debated whether to say anything about our situation on Facebook. I didn’t want to embarrass my daughter. On the day I found new live bugs on her head, though, and she was going on two days out of school, I was so frustrated I posted, “A pox upon you, head lice!” It felt less gross than saying, “Hey, everyone! We have head lice!” It turned out, when I did share, I received an outpouring of support and advice from many friends who had gone through the same experience.

A lot of social stigma exists about lice – that only people who are dirty or poor get them. The truth is they can affect anyone and are more common than we realize. Anyone can contract lice and everyone can get rid of lice with the right approach. Being authentic and talking about lice helps to remove the stigma. You’ll realize you are not alone, your family isn’t disgusting, and that you can beat these bugs.

One of my college friends who dealt with lice with her daughter last year assured me on Facebook, “You will get through this.”

I kept repeating that to myself with every combing session and every load of laundry. After a few days, I couldn’t find any more lice, dead or alive, or eggs when I used the combs. We did it. We DID get rid of lice. So can you.

And as my daughter pointed out, while it was a bummer that I had to “take 100 hours” to comb her hair, she did get out of making her bed because I was busy washing everything. A benefit, I guess, for the kids when the parents must get rid of lice.

Sometimes you have to be happy with the little things.

Just as long as those little things don’t have six legs.  


Category: Health

Tags: get rid of lice