Horror of horrors, you or a loved one picked up lice. Scream! What to do? This article is based on personal experience and lots of desperation-fueled internet research. It’s intended for people who got lice while traveling, like me. However, for the most part the advice applies to all cases of lice.
Step 1: Do You Really Have Lice?
You’re probably still hoping that the answer is no. But if your head is really itchy, and you’ve found a small bug, it’s almost definitely lice. Everyone compares a louse to a sesame seed. As a woman who consumes sesame seeds by the spoonful, I feel this is inaccurate. An adult louse is slightly wider than a sesame seed and almost twice as long.
Step 2: Don’t Panic
You’re fine. Are you in a hospital with dengue fever, malaria, japanese encephalitis, or yellow fever? No. Will this malady cost you hundreds or thousands in medical bills? No. Will bugs be crawling all over your body? No. Will people know you have lice and therefore treat you like a leper? No. Are you going to give lice to your traveling companions? No. Chill out. You can nip this whole thing in the bud starting right now.
Step 3: Don’t Gross Yourself Out
Lice like living on your warm scalp. Otherwise they are like a fish out of water. You are not a walking corpse. You’re not going to wake up to find yourself covered in bugs. They aren’t going anywhere besides your head (or the person whose head you touch with your own). Unlike many sites will tell you, you do not need to wash everything you own in scalding hot water, vacuum obsessively, or sequester things in plastic bags. Lice don’t live on your clothes, furniture, or sheets. They live on your head. Unless the sheets at your hotel aren’t plain colored, you will be able to see a louse that crawled off your hair and has been hanging out on the bed waiting for your return. Changing your sheets every night just creates more laundry. If you’re really paranoid, change your pillow case. I didn’t wash or change anything and slept in the same hotel room the first three days of my lice discovery and lice war (and then continuously in a new hotel room for five days).
Step 4: Get Ready for a Waiting Game
Basically, you are going to kill all the lice with the ability to move (adults and juveniles). There are lots of ways to do this. Then you are going to wait about eight days during which the eggs/nits will be hatching but not yet mature enough to lay eggs. (Be sure to corroborate this suggestion with your own research.) Throughout the eight days, there are proactive things you should do. After eight days, you are going to kill all the lice with the ability to move again. Assuming you get them all, you’re done! Lice free!
Step 5: Decide How You Want to Kill Your Lice
There are a multitude of methods. People will tell you to use mayonnaise, conditioner, pesticide shampoo, salt, olive oil, etc. Do your research and choose what’s best for you. Many people feel it’s freaky to put carcinogenic (cancer causing) chemicals on their body. When it came to killing lice, my reservations weren’t enough to keep me away from the pesticide shampoo.
Step 6: Kill the Lice
The concept with mayonnaise/ conditioner/oil is that it smothers the lice. Some argue that they die from lack of oxygen if the substance is left on overnight. Others say the slippery stuff “stuns” them for about 20 minutes, giving you time to comb the bugs out. A salt treatment, supposedly available in the U.S., purports to dry out both the bugs and their eggs. With a pesticide shampoo, you apply it to the hair and let it sit for 15 minutes as the nasty Little Insects Crawling Everywhere die slow and painful deaths. Then you rinse it and out come all the dead little bugs. Ick. I was told not to wash my hair again (definitely not with the pesticide, and not even with regular shampoo) for two days. I immediately put conditioner in my hair to aid in combing through with a fine-toothed comb.* As I did, more dead lice came out with each pass.
*Would a sesame seed, which is slightly smaller than an adult louse, fit through the teeth? No? Then the comb is fine-toothed enough. The finer, the better. Obviously a comb made for the purpose is best, but if it’s the middle of the night like it was for me, whatever you’ve got handy might do the job well enough to get all the mature adults – that’s the real concern. You’ve got to make sure you’ve rid yourself at least of all the egg-layers, if not all the crawlers.
Step 7: Count the Days
If you go the pesticide route, after waiting two days, you can do the whole conditioner/mayonnaise/olive oil and combing thing. You could repeat every day if you’re paranoid. I only did it every two days. Theoretically, you could eventually get rid of the lice by combing out the immature hatched bugs every two days for a month. In the end, you’d be left with a bunch of practically invisible empty egg shells and no more lice. But having someone to nit-pick is good insurance.
Step 8: (Optional) Find a Nit-Picker
Ideally, you’ll have a friend handy whom you don’t mind asking to “nit-pick” your head at least once, if not every other day. Lice eggs are called nits. They are practically superglued to the hair shaft about a quarter-inch to an inch from the head where it’s nice and warm. In a perfect world, this person, after you kill your lice the first time, will be able to go through and pluck out hundreds of nits. They aren’t easy to spot. If your buddy isn’t experienced, tell them the nits are shinier than hair and will catch and reflect the light more brightly. They are supposed to be concentrated around the ears and neck, but mine were everywhere and loved the crown of my head. Once your nit picker has spotted one, they need to pinch the nit and slide it all the way down and off the hair shaft. It is my understanding nits are not guaranteed to be removed with a comb (so why is it called a nit comb?). Your job is to kill the egg by smashing it between two hard surfaces. The back of your fingernails work great. Or two coins if you’re horrified by the idea and really want to get fiddly. I read that the eggs can actually live longer off the body (several days) than the adults (12 to 48 hours, depending on the environment) – so SMASH it! If it doesn’t “pop,” it was an empty egg shell. If it does, congrats! One less louse to battle! Don’t have someone to nit-pick? Ask at a hair salon if they’ll do it for you. Don’t be embarrassed. People in developing countries don’t freak out about bugs the way first-worlders do. And they know that lice is not leprosy. No one is going to get lice from nit picking for you.
Step 9: Kill Your Lice! Again!
If you went the pesticide route, it’s time for another application. Decide after you research which day you think it is that lice mature and begin laying eggs. My research said it takes an egg seven days to hatch, and three more to start laying. So on the 8th day, after even the youngest eggs would have hatched since my original treatment (and hopefully the lice that reached maturity before then got combed out in my conditioner routine), I applied the pesticide again.
Step 10: (Optional) Find A Nit Picker
I didn’t have anyone handy and was relatively confident at this point the the lice were gone. But if I’d had a buddy I would have begged them to check me over just in case.
Step 11: Follow-Up Combing
For the next two weeks, I continued plugging my hair full of conditioner and combing it thoroughly every two days. I never found another louse, but it was great peace of mind.
Step 12: Don’t Get Lice Again!
It’s pretty easy not to get lice. A friend of mine was a principal in an impoverished school-district for over a decade where 30% of the kids had lice all the time. She never got lice. I worked one-on-one with a little girl who had lice for six months. We went to the movies together, sat in a car together, went out to eat together, shared hugs, walked together – and I never got lice. People with hair less than an inch long usually do not get lice because the environment on their scalp isn’t warm enough for the creepy crawlies. Long haired folks are more susceptible to lice as there is a greater surface area for them to grab onto with their superhero little legs. In situations where you can easily pick up lice (overnight bus rides, playing or working with children, etc), tie up your hair. (And while you have lice, as a courtesy to others, you should tie up your hair around them.)
That’s it! Hope yours is a twelve-step miracle! If you’ve got a lice experience or lice advice, please share it in the comments.