Updated: Nov 19, 2019
Say the word “lice” to most people and they will probably recoil in horror. I know my wife and I did when ̶ many, many years ago ̶ my daughter came home from elementary school with a note telling us that a couple of kids had been found to have head lice.
At the time, neither my wife nor I knew that much about lice, but we went in panic mode nevertheless: fumigating the house, washing all of our clothing and bed linens, vacuuming like people possessed, and scrutinizing our children’s scalps too many times a day.
In retrospect, our reaction wasn’t uncommon, but we got a lot of things wrong. What follows then, is a brief introduction to the “Life and Times of the Louse." And, of course, we'll offer tips on how to get rid of lice for good.
What Are Lice, Anyway?
Contrary to popular belief, there are three types of lice, not one. All of them are parasites, surviving as they do on the blood of their victims; and all of them are found on the human body, on the head, body and pubic region, to be specific.
The Three Types of Lice
Head Lice - This louse, as it sounds, is found in the hair. The official name is pediculus humanus capitis.
Body Lice - The scientific name is pediculus humanus corporis.
Pubic Lice - Also called crab lice, the scientific name is pthirus pubis.
For the purposes of this blog, we’re going to focus on the first two ̶ head lice and body lice. We'll leave the pubic lice for another time.
Again, contrary to popular belief, cats, dogs, and other pets do not carry or transmit lice. It is close, person-to-person contact that accounts for lice infestations. These nasty intruders can neither fly nor hop, so it’s very unlikely that they can make their way into your home from outdoors.
What Are Head Lice?
Needless to say, head lice are very hard to see ̶ especially if you’re combing through your son or daughter’s hair. But, for the record, adult head lice are about 2-3mm long, and can usually be found all over the head. Lice eggs (called nits), on the other hand, are usually attached to the base of hair shafts, which make them particularly difficult to find.
Fortunately, you can use both OTC (over-the-counter) and prescription medications to combat head lice infestations, although prescription medications are sometimes used in the most extreme of cases of lice.
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention):
“Head lice are not known to transmit any disease and therefore are not considered
a health hazard. . .. [head louse infection] may take 4–6 weeks for itching to appear
the first time a person has head lice.”
How Do You Know You Have Lice?
If you’re a parent, you may suspect lice when you see your child itching his or her head furiously. If you haven’t combed your hair yet in search of lice, you may not know you have them for quite some time.
Here are some of the telltale signs that you have head lice:
A tickling feeling or a sensation of something moving in the hair
Irritability and sleeplessness
Sores on the head caused by scratching, which can sometimes become infected with bacteria normally found on a person’s skin
How Many People Get Lice?
The fact is that reliable data as to how many people get head lice each year in US simply isn’t available. Estimates range between 6-12 million outbreaks per year, and that’s just among children three to 11-years-old. These are estimates, however, and the fact is that nobody really knows for sure!
In just a bit, I'll explain how to get rid of lice once you have them, but first some preventative measures to know about:
How to Prevent Head Lice
If you really want to guard against head lice, you would be wise to follow these recommendations:
Don’t share clothing, e.g., hats, scarves, coats, hair ribbons, or barrettes.
Do not share combs, brushes, or towels.
Don’t lie on beds, couches, pillows, carpets, or stuffed animals that have been in contact with an infested person.
Vacuum your floors and furniture frequently.
Some studies show that putting a few drops of rosemary oil, tea trea or eucalyptus oil in your hair when shampooing can repel lice.
How to Get Rid of Head Lice in 4 Steps
Comb the hair thoroughly with a special, fine-toothed comb.
Use an OTC treatment on the hair. These range from shampoos, which kill the lice, to oils that smother them. Pyrethins are a natural choice, but they kill only the lice, not the nits. Alternatively, permethrin lotions like Nix kills both lice and nits. They also leave a residue in the hair that is designed to kill any remaining visitors.
After treatment, re-comb the hair while wet.
Wash all sheets, towels and clothing in very hot water. Then dry them at a high temperature for 15 or more minutes. This will also effectively kill lice and eggs.
Place items such as bike helmets and stuffed animals in a plastic bag to suffocate lice and nits. Wait at least 10 days before taking them out, since while lice can only survive for 24 hours, the nits can live up to 10 days.
Comb your hair, or your child's hair, every day for at least a week.
Re-treat with an OTC shampoo or chemical again after one week.
If your child was affected, let his or her teacher know about the lice so other parents can check their children as well.
Now that we've taken care of your hair, let's move our focus to body lice.
What Are Body Lice?
Head lice are one thing. Adult body lice are an entirely different problem, especially since they can spread diseases of various kinds. Outbreaks of typhus and louse-borne relapsing fever ̶ among other maladies ̶ have been linked to body lice. This is particularly of places where poverty, climate, even social customs cause people to balk at changing and laundering clothes.
Like their cousin, head lice, body lice are about 2-3.5 mm long, but they don’t actually live on the skin of a host. Instead, they tend to live and lay their eggs on clothing, only moving onto to the skin when they need to feed. Again, like head lice, body lice spread through close, person-to-person contact; however, unlike head lice ̶ which can thrive in almost any set of conditions ̶ body lice are usually associated with people who are forced to live in extreme poverty, and what that usually brings with it: crowded living conditions, inadequate hygiene, poor healthcare, and lack of clean water.
Once again, it should be pointed out that cats, dogs, and other sorts of pets are not in any way responsible for spreading lice.
Get Rid of Body Lice in 4 Steps
The good news is that body lice are relatively easy to control by implementing a few simple steps. Here’s the step by step process of how to get rid of body lice.
Change and wash your clothes regularly, especially underwear. Dispose of any affected clothing to control lice and prevent them from spreading
Wash clothes in hot water, followed by ironing. This will ensure all lice and nits have been killed. An increased level of personal hygiene with regular bathing or showering is essential for control
Change your bedding regularly. Be sure to wash all sheets and towels in hot water the establishment of human lice
Dry clean or tumble-dry affected items at >60 degrees C for 15 minutes or more. This will also effectively kill lice and eggs.
Get the Lice Out of Your Home
Lice out of your hair? Check. Lice off your body? Check. But what about the rest of your house?
Once you’ve eradicated these pests from you person (and clothes), you still have some work to do. While lice (both the body and head varieties) generally die soon after being removed, objects with which infected persons have been in contact may harbor some survivors, and they can quickly spread if they aren’t dealt with ASAP.
You probably know that combing lice out of your hair and taking a hot bath can go a long way in getting rid of the lice. But, alas, there is more work to be done. While their life span may be cut seriously short, lice are resilient and will find a way to survive, if they can. You still need to a furniture spray for lice to get the bugs and nits out of carpets, curtains, sofas and more.
If you’ve just survived lice and successfully rid them from your (or your child’s) head, we highly recommend treating your couches and curtains with Sterifab spray. It will kill the nits, get rid of lingering lice on the furniture and help ensure the pests are gone for good. Plus, it will disinfectant what it touches and is completely nonresidual. So you can sit right back down on your lice-free couch and relax - knowing those lice are a thing of the past.