What's the best treatment for head lice?

When school is back in session, lice infestations usually rise. There are 6 to 12 million cases of head lice infestation each year, according to the CDC.  With these large numbers, it is no surprise that multiple treatment options exist.  These treatments can range from over the counter treatments, prescription medications, and most recently the creation of lice treatment centers or mobile lice treatment units.

First, let’s dispel some myths about lice. If you discover lice, don’t be embarrassed!  Head lice are not the product of poor hygiene. Usually head lice are spread from direct human head-to-head contact. This means, you can’t contract lice from your pets as well. Second, head lice cannot fly or jump. They can only move by crawling, so you have to be in close contact with someone to be infested. Third and most importantly, you do not need to cut your child’s hair if infested, there are many ways in which we can kill the lice and keep everyone’s hair in place. 

With these myths out of the way, if you discover that you or your children have head lice – it is time to start treating.  There are multiple medications and treatments that you can use to treat head lice but listed below are some general practices to treat by:

1. You can treat lice with over-counter medications with pyrethrin- or premethrin-based shampoos. Remember to remove clothing that could become wet.  It can stain or increase your chance of continued infection

2. Use the lice comb as directed. You want to pick out the nits every few days. Make sure to be systematic about this and to comb the hair in sections. Continue to do this for up to two weeks until nits are no longer present.

3. Make sure to clean the house and other clothes to prevent reinfection. It is best to vacuum non-washable items and wash all towels, bedding, clothes, stuffed animals, combs, and bushes. Make sure to wash these items in hot, soapy water that is at least 130°F. 

4. Monitor others in the household and treat as necessary. Remember head lice are extremely contagious.

5. Consult your physician if...the nonprescription shampoo is not working, if you are pregnant, or if you have infected skin abrasions or hives.

Recently, there has been a rise in the creation of lice treatment centers or mobile lice treatment units.  These centers are not bad, but you want to keep a few things in mind before employing their services.  You can easily treat head lice at home.  Some of these centers are costly and can charge you an hourly rate.  

If you follow the steps above or your physician’s directions, you can save some money in the long run.  Also, these centers often advertise the use of “natural products.” Again, these are not bad products, however these non-prescription options are not Food and Drug Administration regulated.  That means that their safety and effectiveness has not been tested to FDA standards. 

In the end, whatever treatment you choose is your decision, but it never hurts to have some background information so you can get a “head” start on your lice situation.     


Have a question for the Healthy Kids panel? Ask it here. Read more from the Healthy Kids blog »