Using Science to Protect Your Kid from Head Lice: 4 Easy Steps

Ahh, the alarm bells that go off when parents hear the words “head lice”, it’s akin to hearing that they have squirrels in their attic.  Although I know some parents who would take squirrels over head lice given the choice.

We’ve all heard the common adage, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  This is especially the case when it comes to head lice.  According to the CDC, 5-10% of school age children have head lice.   And, although those aren’t bad odds, the time, effort, and money it takes to get rid of head lice makes parents want to do whatever they can to prevent it in the first place.

Knowing the biology of head lice is key to protecting your kid from this unwanted guest. First, head lice are human obligatory parasites, which is a fancy way to say that they cannot live without their human host; once they’re off your head they’re dead.  In other words they don’t, and won’t, live in your couch cushions, carpet, or curtains.  They don’t have wings and their legs don’t allow them to jump or hop.   If they want to move from point A to point B they must walk from one head of hair to another, there is no other way.  These two facts alone contribute to the fact that ninety-eight percent of all head lice transmissions are a result of head to head contact…98%!  Which means your kids closest buddies, the ones they spend the most time with, are typically the ones who share this unwanted pest.  And in the summer months, this has come to include new friends made at summer camp. However, summer camp staff are well aware of the risks and take steps to minimize the possibility of transmission.

So, what’s the ounce of prevention when it comes to head lice?

(1)    Keep hair tied back – Have kids with longer hair wear it in a tight braid or a bun; don’t give lice a chance to walk on over to hang out with you kid.  If their hair is down and touching someone else’s hair who has head lice, there is a much higher chance of transmission.  Because boys generally wear their hair shorter, they have a lower chance of contracting lice, but it doesn’t eliminate it.

(2)    Be smelly to lice – Head lice have an amazing sense of smell, which we can use to our advantage. Lice dislike the smell of many things, but the thing they hate most is peppermint. So, before you send your kid off to hang out with other kids, spray them with a peppermint spray.  It’s the same concept as using a mosquito or bug spray in the summer months, except the scent is less offensive.  In addition, use a mint based shampoo at least once a week so the smell of peppermint is always in their scalp, which is where lice like to live.

(3)    Be aware – share with your kid that head to head contact is how they get lice.  Certainly we don’t want to stop our kids from being affectionate, loving human beings, but if they’re playing on their electronics maybe they don’t have to touch heads.

(4)    Comb out weekly – comb your child’s hair with a quality metal lice comb once a week, on the same day every week.  This will reveal the presence of lice before they have a chance to start a full-blown lice party.  Like most insects, lice are really good at making more lice.  One female lays 10 eggs every day that will hatch in 7-10 days.  When left undetected and undisturbed, one louse grows into a truckload of lice within a short period of time.

Incorporating these few simple things into your family routine could save your kid from picking up these unwanted hitch hikers.

About the author:

Kelly is an epidemiologist and owner of The Lice Lounge, a lice treatment salon in Minnesota.