Head lice is an extremely common occurrence, especially among children aged 3-13, and though it can be a super itchy and annoying issue, it isn’t something to lose your head over. A few simple steps can help eliminate the infection and ensure that your child’s head remains bug-free going forward.
Just to be clear, we here at the Slumber Yard are, by no means, medical professional, nor are we experts on the topic of head lice (although my mom might as well have been back in the summer of ‘06. Thanks for digging through my hair, mom!) What we do know is that sleep is incredibly important and head lice can be a really stressful and time-consuming issue to deal with. When treating head lice, it can be easy to worry that your entire house—including the large items you’ve invested a lot of money into, like your mattress or your couch—might be infested. We totally understand the worry, so we’ve compiled this guide to help you deal with lice head-on and get back to sleeping soundly.
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Understanding the biology of lice, what their life stages are, and how long they live, can be really helpful in beating an infection. Lice are only “contagious” at the fully-grown, egg-laying stage. Mature female lice can spread from head to head and will lay their eggs, or nits, along the hair shaft. These eggs are usually smaller than a poppy seed and appear off-white or yellowish in color, they are also coated in a sticky substance that the female louse uses to attach them securely to the hair shaft where they will stay safe and warm against the scalp. Nits cannot be killed using most over-the-counter lice treatments, instead they should be removed by hand using a special lice comb. This is a long and tedious process but is one of the most effective ways to control and get rid of a lice problem quickly.
It takes about a week to ten days for the lice eggs to hatch. Newly hatched lice are called nymphs and spend the subsequent ten days or so in a stage of molting and growth. Nymph lice are not yet capable of reproduction and are extremely vulnerable outside of their shells. Treatment shampoos and other treatment methods work really well to suffocate or attack the lice at this stage. There are several chemical and natural treatment options on the market and some slightly hair-brained DIY treatments as well. For example, when I had lice as a child, my mom coated my hair in mayonnaise for three nights to try to suffocate the lice. I have no idea how well this solution worked but I do know that my pillow smelled like a BLT for the next few weeks.
Once the lice have reached reproductive maturity they really start to become a pain in the neck. Fully-grown lice are fast and they feast on blood from the scalp. The itchiness associated with head lice comes from an allergic reaction to the lice saliva that is imparted on the scalp when lice feed. Mature female lice can lay 6 to 10 eggs per day and live for twenty to thirty days after reaching maturity, so it is extremely important to frequently conduct nit-picking sessions on your child’s head to remove these eggs and prevent more adult lice from joining the carnival on their cranium. Lice are wingless creatures and they prefer to stay close to their food source, so they don’t often venture off of their host’s head. They do, however, sometimes get stuck to hair follicles and can be spread on loose hair in hair brushes or hats. They can also spread through head to head contact, like hugs.
There are some steps that you can take, even before you hear of a lice outbreak, in order to ensure your child’s head, and you home, stay lice-free zones. The primary way that lice are spread is through hair to hair, or head to head contact. If your child has long hair, it is a good idea to keep their hair up or tied back to prevent exposure. You should also make sure that they know not to share hair brushes, hair accessories, hats or any other item that comes into close contact with another person’s head.
Conducting a routine lice check on your child’s head is also a really good idea. Even if they have not been exposed to someone with lice, scoping out your child’s scalp on a weekly basis is a good way to ensure they do not get infected and, if they do, you can catch it and treat it quickly. Pay special attention to the base of the hair shaft, especially behind the ears and close to the nape of the neck.
There is a lot of stigma associated with lice, but in reality, contracting a lice infection does not mean you are dirty or have poor hygiene. Lice can spread to anybody, they like hair of all lengths, textures, colors and cleanliness levels. That being said, there are a few steps that you can add to your child’s hygiene routine to increase their defense against lice. Certain essential oils, when added to shampoos or diluted into water and sprayed on items that come into close contact with your head can act as a natural lice deterrent. The oils and fragrances typically believed to repel lice include peppermint, tea tree, coconut, lavender, eucalyptus, rosemary and lemongrass. Using these lice deterrents does not totally guarantee immunity to lice, but they should be helpful. It is also convenient that these all smell quite nice (much better than mayonnaise, at least).
When you are dealing with lice, it might make you feel like everything is infested. Rest assured, there is no need to throw away everything you own or burn down your house: your head is infected, but your home is NOT.
It is true that lice can sometimes fall off of their host’s head, but it is pretty uncommon for lice to leave their food source. Lice also will not lay their eggs on your couch or in the fibers of your clothes. They want to keep their eggs as warm and safe as possible, so lice only lay their eggs on human hair follicles.
If you do experience a lice infestation, there are a few steps that you can take to make sure all surfaces that have come into contact with the infected head are cleaned and rid of any possible stray lice.
Start by removing any stray hair from items that have come into direct contact with the hair. This includes hair brushes and combs, barrettes and hair accessories, towels, hats, scarves, jackets, and backpacks. Soak these items in boiling hot water or run them through the dryer on high heat for several minutes. Any items that cannot fit in the dryer, or shouldn’t get wet, like helmets and wigs can be placed in the freezer overnight and then cleaned out with a rag or a lint roller. Any large household items, like rugs and couches should be safe after a thorough vacuuming to remove any stray hairs. Don’t forget about the car, as well, vacuuming car seats and headrests should do the trick.
There is no need to hire a maid service or shave everybody’s hair in your home if you are dealing with lice. It is just a matter of cleaning anything that might have come into direct contact with the lice and being proactive about preventing further infection. Focus on the infected head first though, this is where the infection is, and your house can never be free of lice if your hair is not.
The short answer is, they can’t. Lice really cannot live apart from a food source for more than 24 to 48 hours and, unlike fleas and bedbugs, they don’t like to live separately from their host, returning only to feast. If you wake up feeling itchy, or have seen bugs running around on your mattress, it might be bed bugs. In which case, check out some of the tips and tricks that we have found to deal with these pesky bedfellows here.
If you are still worried about the cleanliness of your mattress when you are dealing with lice, there are a few things that you can do.
First and foremost, strip all sheets and blankets from the bed and wash them on high heat. The heat should kill any lice that may be alive. Also pay special attention to any blankets, pillows, or stuffed animals that your child has a tendency to lay their head on—yep, their lovies have to take a ride through the washing machine too. Anything that can’t go in the washing machine, like pillows, can be treated in the freezer for several hours.
Once your mattress has been stripped and all your linens cleaned, you can give it a thorough vacuuming and spray it down with a lice deterrent essential oil, I recommend a blend of peppermint and lavender as these oils have also been seen to help you sleep better.
Beyond this just continue to be vigilant about treating the source of the lice issue: the head. Check the heads of all people who live in your household and inform anybody who has had close contact with the infected individual that they should conduct a lice check as well. Yep, this includes informing your child’s school. Check your school’s lice policy because different districts have different rules about lice reporting and treatment.
Head lice can be a real bugger of an issue, but if you stay patient, persistent, and level-headed throughout the treatment process, you will be sleeping soundly, not scratchily, in no time.
(Bonus points if you count the number of head lice related puns in this article.)