Head lice: How to treat them

21 June 2014

Most moms will have at some point received a letter from their kids’ school warning them to check for head lice. The mere thought is enough to make most people’s skin crawl but relax, it’s quite common and we’ve got some good advice.

Anybody can get head lice, but it’s especially at school where kids come into contact with these little creatures. When their children are infected panicked moms understandably want to eradicate anything that even resembles an insect, which is probably why so many parents and schools are tempted to use “Beatle Juice” – an extremely dangerous substance administered orally via a dropper. A man was arrested in Pretoria in February for distributing the poisonous substance.

But what can you do when lice have taken over your child’s head? Worcester pharmacist Carica le Grange advises moms who’ve reached the end of their tether.

The first thing you should know, Carica says, is head lice have nothing to do with one’s level of hygiene. “There is no connection between head lice and poor hygiene. On the contrary, they prefer clean to dirty hair. They can’t jump, and are spread though physical contact only.”


Carica says clothes and bedding must be washed in extremely hot water then hung in the sun or placed in the tumble-drier. The additional heat will further help in killing the lice. “Everyone and everything in the house must be treated. The mattresses and carpets can also be sprayed with a registered lice poison.”

There are various products that can help with lice infestation, and Carica says there’s a trend away from the use of poison in favour of natural substances such as tea tree oil, because they’re not harmful when absorbed by the skin.

“Permethrin is very popular because it has low toxicity and absorption through the skin. The one per cent solution can be used for children older than six months,” she says. “Products containing tea tree oil are also effective. For prevention, tea tree oil can be added to shampoo – the lice don’t like the smell.

“You can also use natural products that contain coconut, aniseed and ylang-ylang oils for prevention and treatment. Make sure you wash brushes and combs with plenty of hot water after use, otherwise infestation can recur.”

If the lice infestation causes swelling of the lymph glands in the neck, headaches or fever, consult a doctor immediately.

Home remedies

“There are plenty of home remedies, each one with its own way of getting rid of lice.   The most common home remedies are mixtures of vinegar (white or brown) with coconut or olive oil. Before being treated with anti-lice shampoo, the hair can be rinsed with vinegar to soften the shells of the nits. Some [people] smear on mayonnaise then cover the hair in plastic. This suffocates the lice,” Carica says.

Another way of dealing with the problem is to comb hair with a lice comb (any comb with very fine teeth) every third day for about three weeks. “Wash your hair with ordinary shampoo and conditioner then comb the hair from the roots to the ends with slow, easy strokes.”

Carica says it’s been found people who regularly use hair colouring and hot tongs are less inclined to get lice. “Just don’t style hair or expose it to heat after treatment with anti-lice shampoo because it can render [the shampoo] less effective.”

Be careful

  • Take these precautions when treating your or your kids’ hair against head lice, Carica says.
  • Aerosol formulations must always be used in a well-ventilated area.
  • Asthma patients must avoid inhalation of aerosols.
  • Aerosols are flammable so don’t smoke while using them and stay away from heat sources such as camp fires.
  • Avoid contact with the eyes, mouth or any broken skin when using anti-lice shampoo.
  • Carefully follow the manufacturer’s instructions, even if it’s a natural product.
  • Make sure the product you use is age-appropriately safe for your child. Young children are more sensitive to the more toxic products.
  • If you’re using a toxic instead of a natural product, don’t wash your child’s hair while they’re sitting in the bath, because the poison can be absorbed by the skin. Place their heads over a washbasin or bath and rinse using a jug.

Stop the spread

Carica says you can do the following to prevent you or your children getting lice.

  • Don’t allow your children to share hats, scarves, brushes, pillows or soft toys if you suspect there are lice in the area.
  • Immediately inform the relevant daycare centre or school if you find lice on your child’s head. If you have more than one child and they’re in different schools inform all the schools.
  • Keep your children at home until they’re completely free of lice.

-Dalena Theron

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