Ridding a Kid of Head Lice

Shampoos aren't the only option

Dad drying daughters hair
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If your child has ever gotten head lice, you know the creepy critters are one of the ickiest things parents may have to deal with. You also probably know treating pediculosis (the scientific name for a head lice infestation) can be among the most challenging. Lice are elusive: Adult ones are as tiny as sesame seeds and are lightning fast crawlers; their eggs, or nits, are sticky and plaster themselves to single hairs near the scalp and hang on for dear life.

There are all sorts of approaches to getting rid of these pests, from home remedies to head lice shampoos to, yes, even buzz cuts. If you notice your child scratching her noggin nonstop or she complains her head feels itchy, here are some steps to take.

Make Sure It's Lice

It can be easy to mistake white flakes caused by a dry scalp with nits. Dandruff you can move around with a hair brush, but nits will stay stubbornly stuck. Depending on what color your child's hair is, you also may be able to spot adult lice scrambling through her locks. Some children who get lice develop a rash on their necks caused by bites. If these bites become infected, they may look red or crusty and even cause swollen lymph glands in the neck. Be assured this is the absolute worst that a lice infestation can cause; head lice don't spread any diseases.

Hop Right On It

Lice have a very short life cycle—it takes only seven to 10 days for nits to hatch, and another week to 10 days for them to mature into adults and lay more nits.

Don't delay treating head lice as soon as you're certain your child has them.

Check Everyone's Head

If one family member has lice there's a good chance another one does. Examine the scalps of each person who lives in your household—that way you can make treatment a family affair. If you aren't sure, your pediatrician will be able to tell in a second if your child has lice.

Do A Load Of Laundry Or Two

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends cleaning any clothing or other items that have been in contact with the head of the person who has lice in the past 24 to 48 hours. Wash clothing and bedding in hot water, and vacuum to remove lice and nits from furniture, carpets, stuffed animals, car seats, and so forth. If there are any items you can't easily clean in these ways, put them into a large plastic bag and close it up tight for a few weeks to suffocate any unwanted creatures that may be clinging to them.

Wash Those Bugs Right Out Of Her Hair

The most common treatment for pediculosis is to use a head lice shampoo that will kill the adults outright. These products, available over the counter in drugstores, usually near where other shampoos are displayed, won't snuff out the nits, however. You'll need a special comb for that: A lice comb has very fine, closely-spaced tines that can scrape tenacious nits off individual hairs. (Yes, it's an arduous process. You may want to settle your kid in front of a movie while you comb out her nits, because it's likely to take awhile.) Most lice shampoos instruct users to repeat the treatment 7 to ten days later (remember, that's about how long it takes for lice to go through an entire life cycle) just in case any nits were left behind that have developed into adults.

Be Wary Of Home Remedies

If you'd rather not use head lice shampoo, the Internet is swarming with alternative tips for treating pediculosis. For instance, some folks swear by slathering a lice-infected head with olive oil, covering it with a shower cap, and leaving it on overnight. The idea is to suffocate the adults; the nits will still have to be meticulously tackled with a lice comb. Such methods of dealing with head lice won't do any harm, but they're untested.

Go To A Pro

Lice can be stubborn—able to live through an entire course of lice shampoo treatment. In that case, your pediatrician or family doctor may prescribe a stronger treatment, but there's one another way to go: A lice removal specialist will do all the dirty work, at your home or at her place of business.

It's even possible your health insurance will cover head lice removal, or that you can get reimbursed through your health savings account. If so, it may be worth it: Lice removal specialists really are pros at making sure every single nit gets picked.


American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report. "Head Lice." Pediatrics. August 2, 2010, pp. 392-403