Treatment methods for head lice

Sep 30, 2008 at 9:51 p.m. ET

It's the last call any parent wants to receive from school: the one telling you that your child has lice. First comes the shock, then the fear, then the strong desire to handle it. Right. Away.

Child with Lice
Head lice are small bugs that attach to hair, near the root, and infest the scalp. They can spread through head to head contact and sharing combs, brushes and hats. They are often found at the nape of the neck and behind the ears.

How do you treat head lice? Here's the rundown.

Over the counter

You've probably seen the boxes at one time or another - Rid or Nix or another brand sitting on the shelf near the creams and foot powders. But buy it? Nah. It's not something people need, until they need it. So once your child is diagnosed, do you need it?

First, you should know that many over-the-counter products, like Rid, are pesticides and contain strong chemicals for killing the lice. There is some disagreement on whether they even work anymore. Some scientists believe that lice are becoming resistant to the chemicals in the products.

You can also get a prescription for lice-killing shampoos from your child's doctor. These have a stronger chemical to rid your child's head of the pesky bugs.

By hand

If you think that shampooing is the end of your duty, think again. Once the hair has been removed, you still need to get rid of the lice eggs that are investing your child's hair. Whether you use an over the counter method, prescription, or a natural alternative, this is a must.

"There are many different views about what to do and it is important that you handle it in a way that works with your beliefs. There are also many wives tales floating around (mayonnaise, vinegar, etc). I think it is best to consult with your physician. Regardless of the removal method you choose, what's critical is making sure that you have removed all eggs. Eggs won't hatch for 10-14 days, so vigilance in checking and rechecking is key," said Cozy Friedman, owner of Cozy's Cuts for Kids in New York.

Many parents agree that this step is crucial. "During the struggle to get rid of the constant re-infection of head lice we've learned that simply running a head lice comb through wet hair every morning gets rid of them and prevents infestation. I've been trying to raise awareness of this very simple technique but when I talk about it people tend to not believe that it is really this simple!" said one parent, who didn't want to be named.

Some also suggest other natural treatments. Anne Orchard, a parent and author of Their Cancer - Your Journey, said that she tried a product by Forever Living calling Aloe First, which is a spray that prevents lice from gripping hair and a comb to brush the bugs out.

"This has the advantage that is does not involve chemicals the use of which could force lice to evolve which are resistant to them. It is a purely physical removal method. The spray can then be used after the hair is washed on an ongoing basis when there are lice around at the school, and makes re-infesting much less likely," Orchard said.

Lice removal services

If getting near lice just isn't something you want to do, there are lice removal salons and services to help. In Mill Valley, California, Sharon Lindley and Holly Turner, co-owners of Bug-a-lugz, started their salon after Sharon took her daughter to another lice removal salon and felt like she could provide better service. Bug-a-lugz has private rooms for all its clients and everything is kid friendly. Parents are invited to sit in on removal sessions.

Other services like LouseCalls in Southeast Florida will come to your home to take care of lice removal. The on-call service treats between 100 and 200 heads a month, depending on how widespread infestations are. "While at a client's home, we treat the heads, educate the family on what needs to be done around the house, communicate the real facts that they need to know, and basically put everyone's mind at ease," says LouseCalls owner Amy Graff.

Preventative care

Though you can't guarantee that your kids won't get lice, you can take steps to minimize the danger. For instance, tea tree oil is a known lice deterrent. Some lines of shampoos, such as California Baby, have tea tree formulas. Regular checks of your child's hair with a comb can also help catch the problem early if it arises.

"Tell the kids not to share hats or combs/brushes at school. Don't pick up hats at stores like Wal-Mart or Target and put them on. Other than that - lice happen. It's not a reflection on your parenting skills," said Brian Dunbar, a father.

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