As a child, perhaps you had the unfortunate experience of contracting head lice. I managed to avoid it throughout my school days, even though my brother once had a terrible case. Just recently, however, in middle age, I contracted a case from my son. Four out of the five members in our family became infested.
While I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone, we did learn quite a bit about the history of head lice and the best ways to treat an infestation. The experience also taught us that head lice can take a heavy toll on your pocketbook. Because of this, it’s important to take preventative measures to avoid head lice infestation in your home.
History of Head Lice
Head lice were documented as early as 8,000 B.C. In 2000, archaeologists found a nit on the hair of a 10,000-year-old mummy in South America. In fact, as documented by Herodotus in 430 B.C., many Egyptian priests shaved their heads and their eyebrows every other day to eliminate head lice.
In 1909, Charles Nicolle discovered that the excrement of body lice transmitted epidemic typhus, a sometimes fatal disease often spread in close quarters such as prisons and refugee camps. Symptoms of epidemic typhus include chills, fever, delirium, dropping blood pressure, and high fever.
Nicolle learned that sterilizing the clothing of the infected person helped stop the spread of the disease. This method of prevention was used during World War I, but millions of people continued to die as a result of typhus after World Wars I and II. While we now think of a head lice infestation as a harmless annoyance, before the age of antibiotics, it was sometimes fatal.
From the 1950s to 1970s, the extensive use of DDT limited head lice infestations. After 1977, head lice cases began to resurface and were treated with a new chemical, Permethrin, the active ingredient in NIX. By the 1990s, several countries, including the U.S., reported that lice were resistant to Permethrin.
People continue to use commercial chemical treatments with mixed success today. In addition, within the last 10 years, salons that specialize in removing head lice have cropped up around the country, usually in large cities. Head lice infestations happen to a reported 6 to 12 million people a year, according to the CDC, and that only includes the number of reported cases; millions of cases may go unreported every year.
As a fun fact, many words in the English language today come from our experience with lice, including nit-picking, lousy, nitwit, nitty-gritty, and reviewing something with a fine-tooth comb.
Head Lice Treatment Options
If you prefer to conquer head lice removal yourself at home, you need to purchase a head lice kit containing the insecticide that kills the lice, a very fine-toothed metal comb to remove the nits and lice from the hair, and a magnifying glass.
Head lice are very small. The adult is usually no bigger than the size of a sesame seed, and the nits can be impossible to detect by the naked eye when they are first laid. Here are steps to follow for at-home treatment:
- Wash hair without using conditioner, and towel dry until damp.
- Apply the cream solution and leave it on the head for 10 minutes. Avoid getting the solution in the eyes or ears.
- Rinse the cream out of the hair and use the nit comb to remove all of the lice and nits. Some of the lice may still be alive, but slow-moving.
- If you see lice after 7 days, repeat the treatment.
As stated earlier, some lice resist this type of treatment. If you or family members still have lice after two treatments, do not treat again without first contacting your doctor.
The prices for at-home lice treatment kits vary, but on average cost $20. If you have to repeat the treatment, or use the treatment for more than one person in your family, the cost quickly escalates. If you apply the medicine incorrectly, or the infestation seems resistant to the first treatment you try, you may need to turn to prescription medications or get professional salon treatments.
The Licefreee non-toxic hair gel with steel comb (pictured right) sells for around $12 on Amazon.
Salons that focus on removing head lice have cropped up around the country, and many of these salons offer chemical-free treatment by manually removing the head lice.
My family and I took this route because, with two of our children under age three, we did not want to apply insecticides to their heads. My youngest daughter continually touches her hair and sucks her thumb, so we did not want to risk her accidentally ingesting the chemical treatment. Plus, my three children probably wouldn’t have sat still long enough for me to carefully remove all of the nits and lice.
Getting Treatment at a Lice Salon
When we arrived at the salon, the owner and his assistant were very friendly. They immediately checked each of our heads to confirm that we had head lice. The fee for this was $25 a person, but for the four of us who did have an infestation, they rolled that $25 into the cost of the treatment.
Surprisingly, my youngest did not have any lice, probably because her baby hair is still so fine, and it was difficult for the lice to cling to her hair. If I had not gone to the salon, I would have unnecessarily treated her with an insecticide, because I mistook some of her flaking cradle cap for nits.
The salon was equipped with personal DVD players at each station so kids could watch movies while undergoing the lice removal. The salon used no harsh chemicals. Instead, they applied mint spray, which slowed down the movement of the lice, and the workers then meticulously combed through our hair stand by strand until we were lice and nit-free.
My husband required a 1.25 hour treatment; my son required a 45 minute treatment, and my other daughter and I, who both have long hair, each required a 1.75 hour treatment. At this particular salon, treatment ran $75 an hour, so the cost was considerable. The costs for salon lice treatment varies, but expect to spend at least $150-$500 per person for treatment.
Followups & Return Visits
We had to return to the salon one week later so they could once again comb through our hair and remove any nits they previously missed or that hatched during the week. On our return visit, my daughter had a single louse; the rest of us were lice-free.
We returned for a third visit one week after the second visit, where the salon stylists pronounced that we were officially lice-free. The salon guaranteed their work, so, after the third treatment, if there were any remaining lice, the salon would have treated us for free.
Total Cost & Insurance
The salon treatment cost us almost $800. Thankfully, insurance often reimburses this expense. Our insurer reimbursed 80% of the salon fees, so we only had to pay $160. The salon eliminated hours of work for me, and eliminated the need for harsh chemicals, so I thought the salon fees were well worth the cost.
Many people try to use at-home lice removal kits or homeopathic lice removal products before going to a salon. This compounds the costs, and the costs for lice treatment may become even more expensive if you or your spouse have to miss work, or your children have to miss school while you receive treatments.
Removing Lice from Your Home
In addition to removing the head lice from yourself or your family members, you must also deep-clean your home to eliminate head lice. Without a host, head lice die within a couple of days. Deep-cleaning your home helps prevent re-infestation.
Follow these steps for removing lice from your home:
- Vacuum your car interior thoroughly and wash children’s car seat covers.
- Wash all bedding and recently used towels using hot water and dry the items using the highest temperature possible to kill the lice.
- Put all pillows in the dryer on the hottest setting for at least 20 minutes.
- Thoroughly vacuum all mattresses and couches.
- Remove all stuffed animals and other cloth items including backpacks, soft toys, and other items that you cannot wash from your home, and seal them in a plastic bag or garbage bag for at least two weeks.
- Wash all clothes worn by the infested person in the last three to four days in hot water, and dry on the hottest setting.
- Vacuum all carpets thoroughly and mop all wood floors.
- Boil hair brushes to kill the lice or throw them away and buy new ones.
Removing lice from your home is a long, arduous process; it took us two full days. You must be thorough because if you leave some lice behind, re-infestation can occur, which leads to even more work for you and your family.
The costs for cleaning your home varies, but may include buying replacement clothing, personal items, and bedding. Plus, you spend countless hours cleaning and worrying about potential re-infestation.
Ways to Prevent a Lice Infestation
If you have a child in day care or elementary school, you have a greater chance of contracting head lice. Become proactive in fighting infestation by adding some tried and true preventive methods to your daily routines.
Methods to prevent lice infestation include the following:
- Keep boys’ hair short. Nits need to be close to the scalp to obtain warmth from the body; however, lice also need a certain length of hair to attach their eggs. If your boys have short hair, the lice cannot attach the egg to their hair.
- Keep girls’ hair tied up tight. Lice find it very easy to crawl onto loose, flowing hair. They do not like to dig through hair that is tight on the scalp, so keep girls’ hair in ponytails or braids.
- Control lice infestations by discovering nits early. Keep a metal nit comb (e.g. Nit Free Terminator) at home and comb through every family member’s hair once a week.
- Teach children not to share combs, hats, or scarves. Your children can easily contract head lice by using or wearing infested items.
- Sometimes you can’t avoid kids sharing items with other kids. For example, members of a baseball team share batting helmets. My son’s drama group shares costume wigs. In these situations, apply mint spray on your child’s hair. The lice detest mint spray, so they stay on the item, rather than jumping onto your child’s head.
- Have each member of your family use a separate brush. This helps prevent the spread of lice to other family members if one member becomes infested.
Common Misconceptions About Head Lice
Many misconceptions exist about head lice. The fallacies can lead to a false sense of security or to becoming unnecessarily vigilant. Some common misconceptions about head lice include:
- Only people with poor personal hygiene get lice. Actually, lice prefer clean hair to dirty hair.
- Only poor people get lice. Lice infestations occur across all income levels.
- Head lice makes your head itch. Nearly 50% of people never itch while infested, so it can take some time to realize they have an infestation. Only people who are allergic to the lice saliva itch.
- Lice fly. Lice do not fly; they most often crawl from head to head through direct contact.
- You can give head lice to your pet or your pet can give you lice. Head lice only survive on the human head. They do not infest animals.
Head lice have bothered human beings for thousands of years, and will probably never be entirely eliminated. You can take steps to remain vigilant against contracting head lice to avoid the expense of lice removal, and the indirect costs associated with the loss of hours at work and school. If you contract head lice, take heart in knowing that many others have experienced the same situation, and that in a few weeks, the infestation will end.
Have you contracted lice before? What method of treatment did you use and how effective was it?
(photo credit: Shutterstock)