How to Treat Your Child's Head Lice

Itch-itch-scratch-scratch...oh no, it's head lice! Before you lose your cool, remember that head lice are not an actual health threat. So roll up your sleeves and follow Mighty Mommy’s effective tips for getting rid of the lousy parasites once and for all. 

Cheryl Butler
7-minute read
Episode #269

Hearing that your child hashead lice can be a nightmare!  

There’s no doubt that this will sound all your parenting alarms. But guess what? Head lice are actually no big deal. Yes, they are tiny, wingless parasites that like to live in hair and drink the blood in our scalps (yes, it's totally gross). But head lice are not an actual health threat, so if your child does come home with a case of head lice, stay calm, breathe, and follow Mighty Mommy’s steps that have knocked out this lousy condition in several of her 8 kids (sorry, couldn’t resist a little lice humor)..

First things first, if you notice your child is doing a bit more head itching than normal, here’s what to look for:

  • A dry, itchy scalp.  An allergic reaction to the saliva of lice causes itching, but only after an initial exposure period. A child who has never had lice won’t start itching until several weeks into the infestation. But when he starts to scratch his head with vigor, or reports a tickly feeling, it’s time for a lice check.

  • Nits.  The tiny un-hatched lice eggs are about the size of a pinhead. They're tan-colored if they are alive and a bit darker if dead (if hatched, their discarded shells are white and more visible). Un-hatched, they are usually attached to the hair close to the scalp and are difficult to remove (hence the term nit-picking -- more on that later.). Nits, which don’t move, are usually easier than actual lice for a parent to detect.

  • Adult lice in the hair.   Look for tan-colored or brown bugs about the size of a sesame seed. They frequently hang out in the hair behind the ears, and on the hair above the nape of the neck and will crawl quickly away from light. If your child doesn’t have a lot of them, they might be hard to spot. Brace yourself, it is very unsettling to see tiny bugs jumping around in your child’s hair, but when you do identify them, they will be easier for you to spot and remove.

How to Treat Head Lice

If you have a confirmed case of head lice, don't panic and don't fall apart in front of your child.  Yes, there's no question that head lice is not pleasant and quite frankly, these icky parasites are gross, but lice is not a result of being dirty (in fact, they prefer clean hair!). So stay calm, roll up your sleeves, and reassure your child that everything will be all right once you start treatment.  There are three main approaches to treating lice.

  1. The first is the comb-out using specialized nit combs -- definitely the most time-consuming of treatments (and one that requires a very cooperative kid and much patience from the parent. 

  2. Next is using a chemical pesticide that you can buy over-the-counter or get as a doctor's prescription. It comes in a shampoo or crème rinse and kills all the bugs and nits in your child’s hair.

  3. The third option is to smother them with natural ingredients.

Option #1: The Comb-Out

Arm yourself with a special nit comb available at most pharmacies and get to work:

If you have a confirmed case of head lice, don't panic and don't fall apart in front of your child. 

  • Sit your child in good light, either outside or under a lamp. Provide them with distracting entertainment, such as their favorite DVD or computer game.

  • Dampen hair with water or their usual conditioner and comb tangles out with a regular comb or brush. Divide hair into sections, clipping it up with pins to isolate one section at a time.

  • Begin at the scalp and slowly move the comb to the ends of the hair, wiping with a paper towel or in a bowl of water in between combs to remove nits and lice. When you have completed a section, re-clip it and move on to the next.

  • Repeat the process in the days following (you might need to do it for 10 to 14 days to cover the life cycle of a louse) to make sure no louse or nit was missed. To watch a video of the process, visit the National Pediculosis Association, an organization which advocates non-chemical approaches to treating head lice.  Highly recommended if you’ve never had to experience lice before—you will see it in living color and will know just what to look for!


About the Author

Cheryl Butler

Cheryl L. Butler is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. Call the Mighty Mommy listener line at 401-284-7575 to ask a parenting question. Your call could be featured on the show!