People and Places

Mayo? Insecticide? A vacuum? What’s the right way to treat lice? — Lice Services Canada picks through the myths

It’s time to get nit-picky about lice — specifically, the information around treating them. When your child comes home from school itching with lice, that time is not usually the right time to suddenly become an expert on the subject, given that you’re usually in some sort of panicky, burn-everything-in-the-house mode. And if you’re like me, you instinctively rush either to the pharmacy or the Internet — neither of which is a great option. Some experts argue that pharmacy lice kits are ineffective and potentially harmful (you’re essentially washing your kids’ head in insecticide), and the Internet will convince you that dousing your daughter’s head in mayonnaise sounds entirely reasonable (salmonella poisoning anyone?). Instead, we turned to local expert, Anne Doswell from Lice Services Canada, to explore why most drugstore kits don’t work, why selfies are contributing to the spread of lice, and to seek her advice on the best method for treating this pest.

Is there a ‘lice season’ in Ottawa?

No, there is not typically a lice season, but we do start to see more of it starting in March heading into the summer.  The peak is the back to school season when kids are together again as a group.

What age groups are most affected by lice? Is it true that males are less affected by lice? 

Typically, we see young children with lice, but now we are seeing more teenagers because of the selfies and sharing of brushes and hair accessories. Typically men do not get lice because they have a pheromone that the lice don’t like. But that doesn’t mean they can’t get lice. If there is lice in the household, men should be checked too.

What are some common signs to look for with regard to lice? Should parents be regularly checking or are school programs sufficient?

Parents should definitely check once a week looking around the nape of the neck, behind the ears, and around the bangs.  Some children scratch but that isn’t always the case so you need to do a visual check. Most schools do not check for lice, so the parents should really do the weekly checks.

What are some of the common myths associated with the contracting of lice? 

One of the myths is that only people with dirty hair get lice, but in reality lice like clean hair better. Another one is only children get lice —  actually anyone can get lice at any age.

You must hear about people trying all kinds of ways to treat lice. What are some of the most unusual ‘treatments’ you’ve encountered?

We have had families that did the mayonnaise treatment.  This is messy and can be dangerous. Bacteria in mayonnaise doubles every 20 minutes when exposed to the heat of the head. If at any point some gets into their mouth, you can have a very sick child. We have also had people so panicked that they have vacuumed their child’s head, and another case where Raid [insecticide] was sprayed on the hair. None of these methods are safe or effective.

What are some of the common myths about treating lice?

The biggest myth is that doing a drug store product treatment and the follow up 10 days later. The problem with this is that many of these products claim to kill the eggs. There is nothing on the market that kills the eggs. You must get all the eggs out of the hair.  So parents are following the instructions and not realizing that this does not work.

Life Services Canada's technician, Patti, treating her daughter, Hannah. Courtesy of Life Services Canada
Life Services Canada’s technician, Patti, treating her daughter, Hannah. Courtesy of Life Services Canada

Chemical vs. natural — Is it harmful to douse my kids’ skull in pesticides or do I take the more natural route and, for example, wash my kids’ hair in apple cider vinegar and coconut oil?

We do not support the chemical products for a few reasons. The first is that many parents do not read all the instructions carefully. For example, they will treat children under the age of three, they will keep the product on longer than recommended, or they will do extra treatments instead following the 10 day instructions. Also, exposure to these [chemical products] over time has health implications. For a family of four, the parent who does the treatments for all these people has now been exposed eight times!

These products also have a second treatment at 10 days, but that does not break the life cycle of the bug. When you use a natural product you can safely treat children under 3, you can leave it on the hair for longer periods of time, and you can do treatments more frequently.  This allows you to break the life cycle of the bug safely and more effectively.

Combs — I’ve heard that regular combing during the treatment process is the most effective way to rid your child of lice. Is that true? Do the ones you get in drug stores work, or is there a more effective comb? 

The number one thing you need is a really great comb. The ones that are supplied in the drugs store products are flimsy and the teeth are too wide apart. You need a really good metal comb that has the teeth close together and a wire that runs up the teeth.

The bottom line: manual labour is required in removing the lice and eggs, and to do that you need the best lice removal comb.

If you capture a live one, then what?

That tells you that you definitely have an infestation and that there are eggs in the hair. Adult lice, on average, lay 3-5 eggs per day, so you need to go through the hair and remove all the eggs and bugs you can find.

Aside from itching, can you contract anything else from lice?

Itching can happen, but not all people will be itchy unless it is a progressed case.  When this happens, there will be open sores that can get infected. This then moves from a nuisance to a health issue.

Have you ever gotten lice yourself? Were you grossed out?

Yes, I have gotten lice when my three boys had it. That was long before my lice expertise and I was grossed out at the time. I used one of the products from the drugstore and the main thing I remember is how it burned one of my son’s head. That was horrible. I stopped using it and just used that flimsy little comb that came in the package and my finger nails. This went on for three long months before I got rid of it on everyone. I never want anyone to experience that with their family.

My kid has described getting a regular lice check in schools as ‘head-massage day’ — I remember it as a kid, too, and looked forward to the technician passing some sort of tool through my head… it felt great, very relaxing. Is this a common reaction?

Yes, absolutely. When we do head checks at the schools, we have children who try to have it done twice. They love when we come to do head checks.

For more information on products, at-home  or in-shop treatments visit Lice Services Canada, 337 Churchill Ave. N., 613-482-1432.