back to school – The nitty gritty on head lice

Ok let’s bust the myths first – Head lice are not a sign of poor hygiene, it wasn’t a dirty kid that brought them to school, your child can’t catch them from pets, the lice don’t carry any diseases and they don’t jump from head to head.

The truth is that Head lice are small wingless insects that feed off the rich blood supply to the scalp – they have allergenic saliva that instigates itch. They can be dislodged with shampooing and combing. But persistence is needed to completely remove a population from an infested scalp. The thing is there are adults and young to contend with. The adults often drown in the sudsy shampoo and with over the counter tonic. The eggs not so much.

The eggs of the adult louse are known as nits – identifiable as small specks of brown or pink – they are more difficult to dislodge than the adult as the female louse effectively ‘glues’ her eggs to the base of hair shafts – requiring a fine-tooth comb, the patience of a saint and if not a bottle of chloroform then the skills of mesmerism to control the child.

Lice also infest adults but in the back to school season its almost a seasonal the epidemic among kids. The louse may crawl from one head to another during proximity of play, from the head to the desk to the next head during any head down moments and from coat to coat or hat to hat to hat in the cloakroom. Once it makes its way to a new head it will begin to feed and lay eggs that hatch within one to two weeks.

Adult head lice will feed three to four times a day. Without blood they dehydrate and die – that takes about six hours in a dry climate and closer to 24 hours in a humid climate – frequent combing dislodges many and they die off deprived of blood. Not all will be combed out in a session but frequent combing also disrupts their feeding routine and weakens their ability to reproduce.

Tea tree oil and many essential oils can kill lice and nits – they can be added neat to the comb or to combing oils or into castile soap or an allergen free Shampoo/ conditioner at washing time. The strong aroma of tea tree can dissuade adults from lay eggs or visiting the scalp in the first place. Garden grown Lavender can be infused in oils and lavender tinctures can also smother adults and help dislodge the eggs.

There are commercially available ‘natural’ treatments- often utilizing the powerful insecticidal agent pyrethrin from chrysanthemum plants but there are issues about the human toxicity of that agent. The following plants have much safer insecticidal qualities and can be made into poultices, lotions, oils and salves, shampoos and conditioners; try chamomile, geranium, hyssop, lemon balm, lavender, rosemary, mint, peppermint, sage, thyme and tea tree.

The most import thing is to repeatedly comb the lice and nits out of wetted hair with a fine-toothed comb. The wet hair makes it easier to comb and dislodge. See combing oil recipe below. Lice are contagious so do examine other family members and keep your infested child from sharing pillows, hats, combs etc with siblings.

A little help from the kitchen cupboard- Apple cider vinegar is a scalp tonic, so it is good to perk up the scalp after infestation but it may help in the early stages too, as the acidity of the vinegar can loosen the nit glue and make combing out easier. The AVC also stuns the adults making it easier to dislodge/comb them.

Think like a gardener – If you are a gardener you might thing of Lice as being like aphids – they breathe via air holes on the sides of their bodies – with aphids we use garlic to impair their respiration (also insecticidal) and soapy water to block up the air holes and suffocated them. The same can apply to lice.

A thick conditioner often does the trick and it makes combing out easier too – but oil is fantastically effective as well. Be it a jasmine or good quality hair oil or a simple DIY olive oil treatment – the oiliness coats the air holes and suffocates them. You can medicate the oil with essential oils to kill faster. It turns out that both peppermint and tea tree oil speeds up louse respiration so they breathe in the oil quicker and die faster.

Both neem and lavender is toxic to lice and can be added to olive oil or coconut oil easily. There are some concerns around the toxicity of neem with young children but lavender is great and will also help them sleep.

The shower cap treatment – Overnight applications of oil (olive or coconut) with shower cap on will suffocate the adult lice but not their eggs – it will make combing and dislodging easier. Infusing that oil with rosemary, lavender and thyme adds phytochemicals that are detrimental to the nits but healthy to the scalp and person. A tincture of those same herbs can undermine egg grip and damage egg membrane and can be used as daytime scalp tonic.

Remedy recipe – Essential combing oil.
To 50mls of olive oil add 20 drops of one of the following essential oils or for a stronger medication keep the ratio but use 10drops of two different varieties of essential oil into the olive oil base. You can make stronger again for adults
• tea tree oil
• lavender oil
• thyme oil
• peppermint oil
This oil can be applied to a comb to help kill and dislodge both adult and egg. Or you can massage into scalp and leave on overnight— or at least 12 hours. Shower caps protect pillows but also hold in the volatile oils for longer – so killing more pesky lice too.

About The Holistic Gardener

I am a horticulturalist and writer interested in how the garden and engagement with nature facilitates full potential living and therapeutic benefits.
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