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How to treat head lice
Nothing sinks the heart like that tell-tale scratching of your child's fingers through their hair. Head lice are so common, especially with school age children, that you might as well accept the inevitable. Just make sure your approach to head lice treatment is thorough and effective.
By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated May 27, 2021
What are head lice?
Head lice are tiny, wingless insects that live exclusively on the human scalp feeding on blood. Adult lice lay eggs, known as nits, that once hatched take 6-10 days to become fully grown. Once mature, they can transfer through head to head contact.
Reassuringly, head lice can't fly, jump or swim. They're spread by head to head contact which is why children are so susceptible.
How to spot head lice
Although the most common symptom is itching, the only true way of knowing if lice are present is by conducting regular checks with a head lice detection comb and following the three-step process: Check, Treat and Complete.
It's not particularly easy to see head lice so 'detection combing' is the best way to find them. It works better on wet hair but can be used on dry hair too.
Check your children’s hair once a week, with a fine-toothed head lice comb (with tooth spacing of less than 0.3mm to trap the smallest lice). If live lice are found, then speak to a pharmacist to get treatment advice and also be sure to check the rest of the family.
Use a treatment, like Hedrin’s All-in-One Shampoo, which gets to work in just five minutes to kill head lice and eggs whilst leaving the hair clean and fresh. Dead eggs can be removed easily by using the comb provided. Or you could try Hedrin Once Spray Gel which works in 15 minutes with just one application. Both products have a physical mode of action so that lice can’t build up a resistance. Follow treatment instructions carefully, making sure you complete each step as instructed.
Due to the lifecycle of a louse, it’s important to check and repeat the treatment for a second time seven days later to kill any lice that may have hatched from eggs during that time. Check that all head lice have gone a week after the final treatment application to complete the process and use Hedrin Protect & Go Spray leave in conditioner spray which has a nice mango and orange scent to help protect against future head lice infestations.
How to treat head lice
The NHS advises that you should treat lice as soon as you spot them. If one person in your household has lice, check everyone for lice straight away. Then start treatment on anyone with an infestation on the same day.
You can buy a variety of treatments from supermarkets, pharmacies and online. The two main types of treatments are: lotions and sprays, and wet combing. If head lice persists after treatment, you could try a different method or speak to a pharmacist or GP.
How to treat head lice with the wet combing method
Wet combing is one of the most effective head lice treatments if you’re not using a specialised shampoo and conditioner. It can be used with or without medicated lotions, but needs to be done regularly and can take a long time to do thoroughly.
1. Wash the hair with ordinary shampoo. Use plenty of conditioner, (it won't drown the lice but makes them easier to remove).
2. Use a wide-toothed comb to detangle the hair.
3. Once the comb moves freely, switch to the detection comb. Start at the front of the scalp and comb the hair from the roots to the very end.
4. After each stroke, examine the teeth of the comb for lice. Remove lice by wiping or rinsing the comb.
5. Work methodically through the hair, section by section, so that the whole head of hair is combed through.
6. Rinse out the conditioner and repeat the combing procedure in the wet hair.
7. Repeat the procedure on days five, nine and 13, so that you clear young lice as they hatch, before they have time to reach maturity.
Mumsnet user tips:
“Make the combing as pleasant as possible for your child. Make it a treat – sit her in front of the telly with a nice snack (OK, I admit it, DS was shamelessly bribed with sweets and choccies) while you comb.”
“My daughters have wavy, waist-length hair and they are usually completely clear after the second or third comb through.”
How to treat lice with a lotions or spray
There are a number of different products that can be used to treat head lice including.
- Dimeticone 4% lotion or lotion spray – applied and left for eight hours (usually overnight)
- Dimeticone 4% spray gel, such as Hedrin Once Spray Gel, which kills head lice and eggs fast – applied and left for 15 minutes
- Mineral oil and dimeticone spray – applied and left for 15 minutes
- Isopropyl myristate and cyclomethicone solution – applied and left for 5 to 10 minutes
When using this kind of treatment make sure to read all the instructions. Some need to be done twice apart to make sure newly hatched lice are killed.
Use a comb to check that there are no more lice on the scalp two or three days after you’ve completed the treatment, and again seven days after that to make sure they’re all gone. Using a specialist leave-in conditioner like Hederin Protect and Go can help to detangle hair and make it a little easier to comb through wet hair.
Some head lice lotions and sprays can’t be used if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, or if the child receiving the treatment is under two. If you’re not sure what treatment is safe to use, always speak to a pharmacist
Mumsnet user tips:
“You must remember to wipe the comb after each stroke so you don't just move the buggers from one side of the head to the other!”
“If you look under natural light, or with a torch, you may see more. Even then they can be hard to spot unless they're really crawling all over. Best bet is to do the wet combing with some white kitchen towel – the lice or the eggs will soon show up then if they're there.”
“Make friends with them, you'll see a lot of each other. I almost feel sorry when I squash baby lice.”
Frequently asked questions
Can you prevent head lice?
It's difficult to prevent a head lice infestation, but not impossible. Regular detection combing – for example, on a weekly basis – is the best way to find new lice quickly. You can also use products like Hedrin’s Protect & Go Spray, which protects against future head lice infestations.
Keeping hair tied up is also useful. A pony tail which is then plaited helps to prevent loose hairs for lice to get hold of.
Can head lice live on pillows?
The extent to which formites (inanimate objects like pillows) facilitate transmission of head lice isn’t clear.
Some studies suggest that head lice can move between hosts on, hats, upholstery and bedding. This may partly explain why family members tend to be infested. Other researchers argue that the evidence suggests that formites don’t make an ‘epidemiologically important’ contribution to the transmission of head lice.
If you’re concerned about formite transmission, then washing items that are in close or prolonged contact with the head e.g. hats, pillowcases, brushes and combs in hot water and dry in a hot dryer for 15 minutes is sufficient to get rid of any lice on these objects.
Do lice eventually die off on their own?
Occasionally head lice can go away on their own because there aren’t enough insects to maintain the infestation, but usually they’ll stick around as long as you let them. The best thing to do is treat it as soon as you discover them. With treatment you should be rid of them in two weeks.
Does a hair dryer kill lice?
In short no. The NHS don’t advise extended use of a hair dryer to treat lice. Some studies claim that hot air can kill lice eggs if you use the proper technique. But to be effective it requires you to repeat the process every day for around four weeks. And even then – it’s unlikely to work on the hatched eggs. If you’re looking for a chemical free method – wet combing is the best option.
Can you get rid of head lice by washing your hair?
No. Washing your hair repeatedly with normal shampoo won’t get rid of lice and clean hair won’t prevent you from catching lice. Lice don’t mind whether your hair is clean or not, they feed on tiny drops of human blood from the scalp – the hair is just a place where they hang on.
What’s the best natural treatment for head lice?
Wet combing is the most effective natural method to get rid of head lice. The NHS advises against using common alternatives remedies like tea tree oil, eucalyptus oil and lavender oil herbal remedies as it’s unlikely that they’ll work. Electric combs and head lice repellents are also not advised.