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Do-It-Yourself Head Lice Control

Treating People for Lice


Combing lice from a child's hair.Conventional treatment for head lice usually involves the application of a pediculicide, which is an insecticide specially formulated to control lice on humans.

Proper treatment not only kills the lice, but it helps soften the cement holding the nits to the hairs so they can be combed away using a fine-toothed comb that typically is included with the pediculicide shampoo. (Photo courtesy of Barb Ogg, University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension in Lancaster County. You can visit their excellent head lice site here.)

Be sure to consult your physician or health care provider before using any pediculicide product. Some people are sensitive even to low-toxicity pesticides. As with any pesticide, be sure to read, understand, and follow the label instructions. Be especially careful not to get pediculicide products into the eyes of the person being treated.

Most over-the-counter pediculicides contain either synergized pyrethrins or permethrin. Unfortunately, many lice have become resistant to one or both of these ingredients. Prescription pediculicides containing lindane or other ingredients are available from your physician, but must only be used when less-toxic products have been used unsuccessfully several times.

In general, we prefer starting with pyrethrum-based products. Most of these products require application to dry hair, thorough massaging to completely cover the hair and scalp, a contact period (usually ten minutes, but check the label) during which the person being treated sits with the insecticide in his or her hair, shampooing and rinsing to remove the insecticide, and use of a fine-tooth comb to remove lice and nits.

Permethrin-based products are slightly more toxic than pyrethrum-based products, but can be tried if pyrethrum is ineffective. Most permethrin-based products are applied as a cream rinse to towel-dried hair that has been shampooed, but to which a conditioner has not been applied. Conditioners may render the treatment ineffective and should be avoided. After massaging the insecticide into the hair and scalp, the person waits a specified period (usually ten minutes, but check the label), and then rinses their hair. A fine-toothed comb is then used to remove lice and nits.

Permethrin does have one advantage over pyrethrum: It leaves a residual that, in theory, should protect the individual from reinfestation for 14 days. This can help avoid reinfestation when children who have been treated return to school, but other children in their classes have not yet been treated. It also provides some measure of protection against nits that may be missed and may hatch after the treatment.

"Home remedies" using kerosene and other chemicals not intended for use on humans must be avoided. In most cases, aside from being ineffective, these methods often are more toxic and hazardous than using properly-registered pediculicides.

When one person in a household has head lice, it's usually advisable to treat the other family members just as a precaution. At the very least, all members of the family should be carefully examined for lice or nits and treated as needed.

Natural and Organic Head Lice Control

Many people prefer more natural solutions, such as peppermint oil based head lice products. Used properly, with good attention to removing the insects and their nits, these products can be as effective as more conventional insecticides. There are also electronic lice removal devices that do not use chemicals, and which are helpful to people who are chemically sensitive or who simply wish to use non-chemical lice control methods. Homeopathic head lice products are also available.

You also can purchase a convenient all-in-one head lice control kit that helps avoid some of the annoyance and embarrassment of having to purchase various lice control products separately.

Treating Structures, Clothing, and Furnishings for Head Lice

Head lice can sometimes live a few days once after they have fallen, crawled, or been shaken out of a person's, which can result in a treated person (or other members of the family) to be re-infested by lice who crawl back into their hair from furnishings or clothing.

In most cases, a thorough vacuuming and shampooing of furnishings (especially upholstered chairs, carpeting, sofas, mattresses, and bedding), as well as washing or dry-cleaning of all clothing, will remove displaced lice and prevent re-infestation.

In cases where shampooing of furniture is not practical (or when lice continue to re-infest the people in the house, even after proper treatment), you can use a liquid or aerosol insecticide labeled for lice to treat bedding, furnishings and carpeting.

Most aerosol head lice sprays use natural or synthetic pyrethrins or other botanical ingredients as their active ingredients. Some of these products may cause allergic reactions in people with plant allergies or hay fever, so be sure to read and follow the label directions carefully. Some organic cleaning supplies, such as Kleen Free Naturally, also have some insecticidal activity and are useful for treating head lice in structures and furnishings.

We offer a variety of head lice control products through our online pest control supply store. Note that unless otherwise specified on the label, insecticides must NOT be used on people, pets, or clothing. They are to be used only on bedding and furnishings, unless the label specifically says that they may be used on humans. As with any pesticide, always be sure to read, understand, and follow all label instructions; and seek medical attention immediately in the event of any adverse reaction.

For more information about lice treatment, you can consult the excellent fact sheet on the subject prepared by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.