Head Lice: Stop the Spread!

Non-toxic ways of dealing with this annoying bug.

Head Lice: Stop the Spread!

Photo: Goodluz/Shutterstock


Here’s something you may not know about head lice: bad hygiene doesn’t cause it. In fact, head lice can infest the cleanest of scalps.

So what is the most important thing you need to know about this annoying, blood-sucking insect that infests kids in schools, childcare, and camps every year? It’s this: head lice can’t “jump” from head to head, but they can crawl and grab as quick as lightning. And they love it when gaggles of kids get close together or hug – allowing them to move from a hair strand on one head to a hair strand on another, and another, and another. Lice also like to hide out in shared objects, such as hats, combs, brushes and toys. It’s this kind of close contact that spreads lice throughout schools and homes.

You can use this information to help reduce your child’s risk of getting head lice (see prevention tips). And if your child does develop head lice, you can try the following non-toxic method for eliminating it.

Itch a sure sign

Head lice are tiny little insects about the size of a sesame seed. They are visible to the naked eye. However, their greyish/tan colour can be almost translucent making them difficult to see unless you really know what you are looking for. What is easier to see are the eggs or ‘nits’ that stick to the individual hair shafts. Nits that haven’t hatched can range in colour from tan to brown. Once they hatch, they are white and look like a piece of dandruff, but stick firmly to the hair and can resist being shampooed out.

The bite of head lice causes intense itching, followed by intense scratching – the most common sign that a child’s scalp is infested. Children may also complain that they feel something moving in their hair. A lot of scratching can lead to rashes and secondary bacterial infections in the scalp and on the neck area. At this point, you may notice some swollen lymph nodes or glands in the neck area.

What to do

If your child has head lice, it is important to check everyone else in the family and let the school or day care know what is going on. There are many over the counter shampoos and rinses that you can use to help you rid your child of this annoying pest. However, they can be quite toxic and are generally not recommended for children under three or pregnant women. Because they are insecticides, they cannot safely be used repeatedly.

Luckily, there are some non-toxic treatments available. You can purchase head lice kits from your local health food store that contain tea tree oil, a nit comb, and shampoo, and follow the directions 

for use. Tea tree oil has very strong anti-bacterial properties and is very effective in the treatment of head lice.

You can also mix together a blend of essential oils that have anti-bacterial and anti-parasitic properties, such as tea tree, eucalyptus, rosemary, thyme and lavender. Add three teaspoons of this mix to about four ounces of olive or sesame oil. Apply the oil to your child’s scalp and hair and cover with a shower cap. Avoid getting this into your child’s eyes or nose and mouth as it may sting.

Leave the oil mixture on for at least one hour or overnight. In the morning, comb your child’s hair with a nit comb. Shampoo the oil out and rinse your child’s hair with a tea made from rosemary and sage. Comb again with the nit comb while the hair is still wet. Repeat nightly for one week and then once a week for three weeks.

Babies are rarely infected, but if they are put a few drops of the above mixture into a baby shampoo avoiding eyes, nose and mouth. Rinse well with warm water and use the nit comb.

It is important also to thoroughly wash towels, clothing, hats, bedding, brushes and toys in very hot water and detergent and dry them on high to kill the existing lice. Toys that cannot be washed should be dry cleaned or put into sealed plastic bags for a minimum of two weeks. Without a host to feed on, adult lice cannot last very long.

In addition, you should thoroughly vacuum furniture and carpets with which your child has had contact. Don’t forget the car seat. Avoid spraying with insecticidal sprays, which are quite toxic, especially to infants and children. Health food stores also stock tea tree oil spray that you can use on many surfaces to repel lice.


Prevention Tips

  • Teach your children not to share hats, helmets, brushes and combs, hair clips, ties and ribbons with anyone else.
  • Put a drop or two of rosemary or thyme oil on brushes or combs to deter lice.
  • Tie back long hair to keep it away from the face.
  • If there has been an outbreak in your child’s school, let her know that head contact with an infected person is how lice are spread, and that this can happen in school while playing sports, hugging or leaning close to share books or drawing paper.
  • Add a drop or two of tea tree oil to your shampoo to deter lice.

Author: Dr. Mary Welch

Dr. Mary Welch is a naturopath and chirporactor at Circle of Life Wellness Centre in Peterborough.

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