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How To Get Rid of Head Lice

head lice in black hair

How to Get Rid of Lice Fast

How can I get rid of lice super fast?

Your child came home with head lice and you want it gone yesterday. Here’s how to get rid of lice super fast:

Head lice aren’t dangerous, nor do they carry disease, but they are creepy crawly and very itchy, which is enough to make them extremely unwelcome. You don’t have time for a doctors appointment, and you don’t want a treatise on the life cycle of the head louse—you just want to know how to get rid of lice fast.

We get it. Let’s get started on the best way to get rid of head lice:

Step 1: Stop the Spread

You want to get right to killing head lice, but first it’s important to contain the problem. One head lice patient is easier to cure than two or three. 

There’s no need to disinfect the whole house. Contrary to popular myth, head lice don’t jump or fly, so only those items that have had direct contact with the infested head are at risk of harboring lice. Additionally:

  • Head lice only live on humans, so your pets are safe (an innocent).
  • Head lice can only survive off a host for up to 48 hours, so only recently used items are a concern.

First, avoid head-to-head or hair-to-hair contact with the infected individual, and check other family members’ scalps for lice.

Then, ensure that lice have not spread to recently used items:

  • Wash clothes and bedding in hot water and dry on a high-heat setting for at least 20 minutes.
  • Dry items that cannot be washed (like plush toys, etc.) on a high-heat setting for at least 30 minutes.
  • Soak hard items, not suitable for the clothes dryer, in hot water for at least 10 minutes.
  • Seal any other items (comforters too big for your washing machine, furniture, etc.) in plastic for at least 48 hours. 

You may want to wear latex gloves when handling items that might be infested with lice, and/or be sure to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and warm water after you’ve finished.

Finally, take a minute to contact your child’s school and the families of any friends that he or she has been with in the previous week. Head lice spread by close contact, which is why children are more often infested—they are more frequently crowded around a book or device, clustered together for a group photo, sharing toys, etc.

Step 2: Start a Lice Treatment

There are three types of lice treatment options that do not require a prescription.

  • Lice shampoos, creams, and lotions are the most well-known lice treatment options. They are available at most drug stores. The problem with these options is that most lice have now developed a resistance to their main, active ingredients. Even when administered correctly, lice treatments that rely on permethrin and/or pyrethrin are no longer effective on up to 98% of head lice in the U.S.
  • Smothering methods attempt to use common household creams and lotions to suffocate lice before combing out each louse and nit. While combing is extremely effective, there’s insufficient evidence to prove that smothering head lice with oil, gel, or cream actually works to kill lice or nits.
  • A dry, vapor system may be the best lice treatment option available over the counter. The Novokid system has been scientifically proven to kill lice. It does not use permethrin or pyrethrin, so it is effective even against resistant strains of super lice. The treatment is quick and all-natural.

Whichever lice treatment you choose, read the instructions carefully before administering, and follow the directions exactly. Most cases of lice “reinfestation” are actually the same family of lice that were never fully treated in the first place. Be sure to use the proper dose of any medications, leave treatments on the hair and scalp for the required time, etc.

Finally, re-treat as directed. Even the most effective lice treatments can’t generally penetrate and kill lice nits. So while the live lice may be eradicated, the nits will still hatch up to one week later, releasing a new generation of lice on the scalp. This is why a second treatment is usually required about one week after the first. Even if the itching stops and it seems like the lice are gone, follow through with the recommended second (and third, if required) treatment.

Step 3: Remove Lice Nits

Lice nits can only be removed from hair follicles by scraping them off, such as with a fingernail or lice comb. Lice combs are not standard, fine-toothed combs, and normal combs will not work to remove lice or nits from hair. Lice combs are special, small combs with long, fine teeth, and each tooth is micro-grooved to grab and comb each individual hair. 

To thoroughly comb out lice nits:

  1. Wet the child’s hair and apply a standard conditioner. This helps remove tangles and makes the hair smooth and slick to ease combing.
  2. Comb through the hair with a standard, wide-toothed comb first, to remove any tangles. You may also want to use this comb to divide longer hair into thin partitions for examination.
  3. Start near the base of the hairline, near the neck and work up in small sections. As you get up near the child’s ears, divide the hair down the middle and comb through one side of the head at a time. If hair is long, use hair ties or clips to hold sections of hair out of the way.

    Tip: If you are having a hard time seeing your work, make sure you are in a well-lit environment. Many people also employ the use of a small magnifying glass to help get a good few of the base of each hair follicle.
  4. Lay the lice comb flat against the child’s scalp, and gently draw it through each thin section of hair—all the way to the ends. After each stroke, wipe both sides of the comb on a white cloth or paper towel to check for insects and nits. Comb each section of hair at least two or three times.
  5. Wash hair as normal to remove the conditioner.
  6. Be sure to clean all towels, combs, hair clips, etc., as directed above.

Removing nits is not a necessary step for treating head lice in general. Any nits that hatch into new lice will be killed by a second application of the chosen lice treatment. If you want to get rid of lice as fast as possible, however, removing nits with a lice comb can prevent the next generation of lice and solve the problem quickly.

There are other types of lice combs on the market as well:

  • Electric lice combs deliver a tiny electric pulse that kills lice, but doesn’t hurt children. While these are called “lice combs,” they serve as a non-chemical, electric treatment and are not true lice combs. These combs don’t have the same fine teeth that standard combs have and are not effective on nits.
  • Vacuum lice combs are small, hand-held suction devices with lice comb teeth. They comb through hair, sucking live lice and nits into a small filter. 

Note that even if a lice comb is used, the second application of lice treatment is still recommended. It’s possible that some nits are missed by the combing or that some juvenile lice may have survived the first treatment.

Plan B: Prescription Lice Removal

If the standard, OTC lice creams or shampoos don’t work, verify that they were administered correctly. If you followed the directions exactly, and the lice persist, you may be dealing with a strain of resistant super lice.

Talk to your family practitioner or pediatrician about getting a prescription for lice treatment medication. Prescription treatments use different, stronger medications that are more effective on super lice.

Before getting a prescription, many parents try a vapor treatment. Dry, vapor treatments don’t use the medications that super lice have grown resistant to, so they are also still effective when standard OTC treatments are not. The NovoKid system is also all-natural, so you can avoid applying harsh, prescription-strength medication to your child’s scalp.

Fastest, Guaranteed Lice Removal Treatment: “Destruction of Habitat”

Lice hide on the scalp and lice nits are attached to hair follicles. If hair is removed, nits are removed and lice are exposed for easy eradication. A very short buzz cut is the fastest, easiest way to be sure that lice and nits have been treated and removed.

This treatment option is often more acceptable to boys than girls, but should not be considered necessary if the child does not want his or her head shaved. While head lice are not a sign of poor hygiene, an infestation can be embarrassing. The long-term effect of shaving a patient’s hair against their wishes is often worse than an evening or two of discrete, at-home lice treatment. 

Life Cycle of a Head Louse

One reason why head lice are sometimes difficult to treat has to do with their life cycle. While it may seem like a boring biology lesson, understanding that life cycle will help you get rid of head lice more effectively.

There are three stages of life that a head louse progresses through:

  • Egg (nit) — Lice nits are tiny (less than 1 mm long), but in good light they are generally visible to the naked eye. They are white before hatching, so they are often mistaken for dandruff or droplets of hair product. Lice nits are cemented to the hair shaft close to the scalp, because they rely on the host’s warmth to stay viable. Nits hatch in about one week. The egg casing turns slightly yellowish after hatching and remains cemented to the hair shaft.
  • Nymph — Juvenile lice are called nymphs. A lice nymph looks like an adult louse, but it is smaller. They grow and molt three times in about one week, to become a full-grown adult louse.
  • Adult louse — An adult louse is a dull or grayish white and is about the size of a sesame seed. They can live on a host for up to 30 days, feeding several times each day. An adult female louse can lay up to eight nits every day. (And eight eggs each day, for 30 days, is up to 240 eggs from just one female!)

The life cycle of head lice explains why follow-up treatments are so important—and why they are often skipped. A successful first treatment will remove nymphs and adult lice, and the problem seems to be solved. Lice cannot be found on the scalp and the child no longer itches, so second treatments are often skipped.

However, several days later, the lice nits that were unaffected by the head lice treatment hatch, and a new generation of lice infests the scalp. It’s not a reinfestation at all, nor is it the cause of an ineffective treatment. It is the reason that head lice treatments require a second application.

Get Rid of Head Lice Fast

When a child starts scratching at their head, and you part the hair to find tiny insects crawling through their scalp, you want to get rid of the invaders fast. Remember to take a few moments to contain the infestation first, so you don’t end up with more heads to treat in the end. Start a treatment as soon as possible, and then settle in for some very patient combing.

One way to get rid of lice fast is to be prepared before they arrive. Decide which over the counter lice treatment is right for your family, and get it before you need it. Even without requiring a prescription, a trip to the pharmacy or the shipping required for an online order can be an unwelcome delay. Choose the best lice treatment option today and make sure you have it on-hand.

Jennifer Andreoli

Jennifer Andreoli is a New York Times bestselling author. She was born and raised in the Bronx and was a bookseller before shifting to children’s publishing and copywriting. She’s worked at a literary development company and a creative writing website for teens and as a book reviewer of children’s and young adult novels. She loves long walks on the beach and traveling to exotic locales and lives in Los Angeles. When she isn’t reading or writing great stories, she’s probably singing or watching racy shows on Netflix.

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