Head lice: a back-to-school nuisance
Head lice and their eggs (nits) are a frequent irritation for school children and their parents.
Because they spread through person-to-person contact and by sharing personal items like hats and hair brushes, head lice are especially widespread in the fall and winter months.
And super lice, or head lice that are resistant to conventional treatments permethrin and pyrethrum, are now common in at least 48 states.
Most head lice infestations can be treated with inexpensive over-the-counter products.
As always, I suggest you know your options and read the labels so you get the product you want at the best price.
The many ways to kill head lice
There are basically three ways to get rid of pesky head lice and their nits (at least in theory):
- Poison them with an insecticide (pediculicide), such as Nix, Rid, or an essential oil like tea tree oil.
- Dry them out (desiccation) using a hair dryer or the expensive FDA-approved device, AirAllé.
- Suffocate them (occlusion) using a petroleum-based shampoo, soap (Cetaphil), or dimethicone.
Keep in mind that nothing kills 100% of the nits—despite marketing claims—so any treatment needs to be done at least two or three times. Read the directions!
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends using either 1% permethrin (Nix) or pyrethrins (Rid), as long as there is not a confirmed outbreak of super lice in the community.
Permethrin is a synthetic chemical; pyrethrins are natural extracts of chrysanthemum, so can cause an allergic reaction in anyone allergic to ragweed or chrysanthemums.
Tea tree oil is NOT recommended by the AAP because it is a volatile chemical that can cause allergic reactions, skin irritation and breathing difficulties. It and lavender oil can also have estrogen-like effects on the body, causing breast growth (gynecomastia) in young boys.
Related post: Use essential oils with caution
The AAP does not recommend using a hair dryer, either, because although lice don’t jump (like fleas do) the hair dryer might “…cause live lice to become airborne and, thus, potentially spread to others in the vicinity.”
Flying lice is definitely something to think about if you’re considering this approach. 🤔
AirAllé, with its FDA-approved lice-killing device (it basically looks like a hair dryer/vacuum combo), guarantees its one-hour professional treatment. That sounds great, but the downside is that it has to be done by licensed AirAllé technicians, and these are not available everywhere. And it’s expensive, around $170.
Smothering is the AAP’s back-up plan for when insecticides don’t work.
If super lice are in your community, or you just don’t want to use an insecticide, look for a dimethicone-based product.
A 2015 study showed dimethicone to be both safe and effective for school-aged children. This would be my treatment of choice.
Recommended over-the-counter products
If you’re looking for lice-killing products that are safe, effective, easy to use and inexpensive, choose one of the following ingredients:
- permethrin 1%
Read the ingredients on the package, and choose the product that fits your needs and budgets. Then follow the directions carefully.
The AAP recommends repeating each treatment at day 9 and day 18.
Save your money and don’t bother with products that only use essential oils. They smell nice and may be “natural”, but they aren’t regulated by the FDA for safety and purity.
Related post: What is the Quack Miranda Warning
A fine-toothed comb is useful for hand picking nits, but combs that are battery powered or that boast special nit-killing powers haven’t been proven to work and aren’t worth the money.
For lots more information on head lice and their prevention, check out the Centers for Disease Control’s webpage.
Always check with your pediatrician if an over-the-counter treatment doesn’t work, of if you have questions/concerns.