With the school year back in full swing, so too are the ominous nit notices your child may be bringing home with them.
Head lice (louse) are a tiny parasitic insects, about the size of a sesame seed, that live in the hair, close to the scalp. One or more a day they pierce the host’s skin to feed on blood. The females lay about 8 eggs a day (also known as nits or cooties).
Lice are wingless insects and pass from head to head by direct contact. Outbreaks are increasingly common in young children and like any epidemics, over the years lice are becoming more resistant to the insecticides used to eradicate them.
Can having lice harm you?
Lice don’t carry diseases and while the bites themselves are barely noticeable, constant scratching can introduce a secondary infection. If your child is run down and has drawn blood on their head from scratching the scalp it is possible the broken skin could become infected, even to the point of the glands (at the back of the neck or under the chin) being raised.
How do you know if you have head lice?
While most people have in itchy head as a symptom of a lice infestation, even if your child is not obviously scratching their head, its best to regularly check them for nits, the egg of the lice. The eggs are small and white, usually found on the hair shaft within 1.5 cm of the scalp. Use a strong light and a fine tooth (nit) comb to search for nits. A magnifying glass is also useful to help you hunt for them.
You can do your initial search when the hair is dry or covered in conditioner. Because the eggs cling to the hair shaft, using conditioner is an easier way of checking. Slather the conditioner onto dry hair, detangling with an ordinary comb first if the hair is long, and then get to work with the nit comb. It really is a case of painstakingly combing the head from scalp, and wiping the comb on a white tissue or piece of paper with each sweep to examine for insects. Pay particular attention to the nape of the neck and behind the ears.
This is a long, boring process and it can be trying to get a small child to sit still for so long. Try to be as relaxed as possible when you do it – chat, play a talking book or dvd to keep the child distracted.
Natural lice treatments
A minor infestation often responds well to doing the conditioner treatment. Remember to start the comb though as soon as you apply the conditioner. Finely comb every part of the scalp five times each time you treat. You need to do the full conditioner comb through three times a week until no live lice have been found for 10 days.
Some persistent outbreaks may require an insecticide. The problem with the chemical insecticides is that they are not always effective and they are also potentially toxic. The Victorian Health Department warns that the commercial chemical treatments should be used with caution:
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding
In children less than 12 months old
In people who have allergies, open wounds on the scalp, or asthma.
While most naturopaths would agree that the alternative treatment using essential oils is less toxic when used at the recommended dose, I would suggest that the conditioner only treatment is best if you are pregnant or the child is under 1 year old.
If you have an allergy prone child, treat the essential oil treatment like any other topical product and do a test patch first on the inside of their arm. If they have no reaction on the skin after 12 hours, then it should be safe to use on them. The oils used in this treatment are not known to trigger asthma.
Be aware that an allergic or asthmatic child of any age might react to conditioners that are full of cheap scent. If you need another option olive oil used on its own, instead of conditioner, is also an effective smothering agent and is easily washed out of the hair. Just use the cheapest brand as this is not a job for extra virgin olive oil.
Lice treatment essential oil blend
For added assurance, this is a tried and true combination to kill lice.
Good quality essential oils can be expensive and it may seen tempting to buy the cheapest ones you can find. Scented oils or oils that are sold diluted in a carrier oil are to be avoided. Fortunately the oils used in this recipe are relatively inexpensive.
Use equal quantities of eucalyptus, lavender, tea tree and rosemary oils. Combine the oils together in a clean, preferably dark, glass bottle with an airtight lid.
Children 2-5 years old: 20 drops of the essential oil combination in 100 mls olive or macadamia oil.
Children over 5 yo: 40 drops of essential oil combination in 100 mls of olive or macadamia oil.
Massage oil blend thoroughly into dry scalp and hair. Comb through with the nit comb and leave overnight. You can protect your pillows by covering with a towel. (If any oil does get on to the linen add a couple 1 ml of eucalyptus oil to the wash).
The next day apply shampoo directly to the hair before wetting the head. Work into a lather and rub well into all areas of the head, including the nape of the neck and behind the ears. Rinse well with water.
You can also add the essential oil blend to the final rinse.
It is important that all bedding, clothes and hair accessories are washed in a hot water wash. You can add 40 drops of the essential oil blend to the final rinse. While not the most ecologically sound option, the high heat of a clothes dryer can also help eradicate lice from clothes and bedding.
Remember to check everyone in the house for head lice every week.