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The secret to handling lice when they invade your kids (and your house)

Bad news for parents of school-aged children, those run-of-the-mill lice from the ’80s and ’90s have upped their game. While the newly mutated “super lice” have most parents shaking in their boots, experts say it’s possible to manage and even prevent the most resistant of lice strains.

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Insert collective moans and groans from all parents here, but we promise: that lice announcement sent home from school isn’t as bad as it sounds.

Not so ‘super’ lice

Lice have been up to a lot since we were kids. In early 2016, from the results of a 2015 study out of Southern Illinois University, researchers confirmed more than 104 strains of genetically mutated “super” lice in at least 25 states. Parents in states like Alabama, California, Georgia, Illinois, Texas, Washington and many more went into full-on lockdown mode as they tried to figure out what to do about the new lice that had grown resistant to most over-the-counter lice shampoos.

Super lice may not be able to die, but they do plenty of other things that regular lice are known to do — like infesting the head and neck and laying eggs on the base of the hair shaft, according to the CDC. Head lice infestation, also called pediculosis, spreads through human contact, and most commonly, through close contact between kids at home, on playdates and at school.

Even grosser is the fact that head lice are parasitic. Head lice on the head, eyelashes and eyebrows feed on human blood several times a day, though they aren’t known to spread disease. In most cases, head lice end up being uncomfortable and inconvenient, resulting in hours of combing through hair, shampooing kids’ heads and burning washing piles of bedding and stuffed animals.

How to get rid of head lice

Besides the obvious itching and scratching, how can you tell if your child has brought the gift of lice home from school? “An infestation is diagnosed by either a visual inspection or running a lice comb through the hair,” Claire Roberts, CEO of Lice Clinics of America, told SheKnows. “If either bugs or lice eggs are spotted, either on the head or pulled out with the comb, that means there is an active infestation. Eggs attached to the hair within half an inch of the hair would suggest that the eggs are viable and could hatch. Eggs attached to the hair farther than that may be empty nits that have already hatched.”

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If the inspection is positive (as is bound to be the case at least once in your kiddo’s life), there are several ways to control the problem. Roberts says that treatment options include:

  1. Using pesticides that attack the louse’s nervous system — which aren’t very effective because the lice have evolved a resistance to them, and they also don’t kill the lice eggs.
  2. Using oils to suffocate the lice. Some oils are effective while others aren’t, but none of them kill lice eggs. Mineral oils and olive oils don’t work. Silicone-based oils (dimethicone, in particular) do work.
  3. Combing out all the lice and eggs — which can be tedious and is difficult to do effectively because unless all eggs are removed, they will hatch, and the infestation will continue.
  4. Using heated air. There is a device that kills lice and 99.2 percent of eggs by dehydrating them.

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While anti-lice home remedies abound, Roberts points out that a DIY lice hack buzzing around Facebook may indeed be too good to be true. “There is very little scientific evidence that they are effective,” she says. “Home remedies usually fall into the category of suffocation (olive oil or mayonnaise, neither of which have the right viscosity to quickly fill and harden in a louse’s breathing holes — which has to happen to kill them), or essential oils, some of which are natural pesticides but only in high concentrations that cause sensitization and irritation to the skin, so the remedies usually don’t have concentrations high enough to do anything.”

As with any home remedies used on a child, it’s critically important to consult your doctor first. Last year, we saw the tragic case of an at-home head lice treatment involving mayonnaise and a plastic bag end in a young child’s death.

Ignorance is not bliss

If you notice that your child is extra scratchy as of late, this is unfortunately not one of those “small potatoes” parenting problems you can ignore. Unlike the common cold, head lice won’t go away on their own. Even worse, they’re highly likely to spread through contact — meaning that everyone else in your house could end up scratching their heads in a few days’ time.

Understanding the importance of minimizing contact is critical as you plot your plan of attack, says Roberts. “The common myths most media report on are that they don’t jump or fly, and personal cleanliness has nothing to do with getting an infestation. Those are good, but the biggest myths that need to be busted are that stuffed animals, pillows, blankets, etc., are at risk of re-infesting people for up to two weeks. Eggs won’t hatch off the head. And most of the bugs will be dead within 15 hours off the head. So, cleaning the home environment is not nearly as important as effectively treating the head.”

Contrary to the Hunger Games decree, the head lice odds are not in our favor. Contemporary Pediatrics reports that head lice incidences among schoolchildren can range anywhere from 2 to 52 percent, most common among kids ages 3 to 12 years old. All that is to say, head lice are very common. If your child comes home from school scratching, don’t panic yet. Start with one of Robert’s recommended containment methods and do your best to keep your itchy kid comfortable until the treatment kicks in.

How to get rid of lice
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows;Image via Getty Images

Originally published Oct. 2008. Updated June 2016.

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