We all got head lice this week. It was awful. But through the course of much research and hands-on experiments, I learned a ton about how to prevent lice, and how to do effective lice treatments. I’m sharing the full wild story with you today to help you avoid our debacle.
Much of this information may surprise you, the way it surprised my 41-year-old self. It turns out that the “super lice” today aren’t like the lice of our youth! Ah… the life lessons never cease.
Finding and Identifying Lice
Our head lice fiasco started at 10:05pm on Monday night, when my 7 year old daughter, J, woke me from an innocent slumber to squeal: “My head itches. Can you check me for lice?”
As this particular little sweetie is performatively prone to sometimes invented issues, I trotted into her room with an indulgent smile, certain that there would be nothing of concern. I started checking for lice at the crown of her head, explaining to her that I could see dandruff (which is different from lice visually, because it moves off the hair when you touch it, and is brighter white and irregular shaped), and that dandruff is nothing to worry about.
Then I moved to check behind her ears — the classic place where lice hide. Uh… oh. On multiple strands of hair, I saw the telltale nits: off-white eggs that look like tiny grains of rice glued just above the base of the hair shaft. But maybe I was imagining this? It was late and I was tired. I checked more — and found more. Gulp.
The thing about being a parent is that you need to make serious decisions, fast, on a daily basis. Moreover, the extra thing about being a divorced parent who is now independently running a household is that you often need to make these decisions alone.
It was way past our bedtime, so I made the executive decision that night to have us all go back to sleep, and to figure out next steps in the morning. (By “go back to sleep”) I mean I tossed and turned in a sweaty freak-out, researching lice articles until the wee hours of the morning.
6am came, and my 9 year old son, D, woke me as he usually does at that time. I snapped awake and pulled him aside to check his head. Holy cow — LICE also. He definitely, absolutely had lice, too.
Taking a “Lice Treatment Day” off of School
There was no way I could do a treatment before the school bus came, and I couldn’t send them to school with that insane infestation. I made the choice to keep them home from school to fully do lice removal, and contacted their teachers to let them know. I also moved all of my work clients for the day, and (apologetically) informed the parents of all the children we’d been in close contact with that they should check their kids’ heads, too.
After many hours of research that had started late at night, I concluded that throwing money at this problem would be the best bet; I would hire a professional de-louser! Woooo, did things ever NOT go as planned.
Professional Lice Treatment Services
From 8am to 10am, I called every lice treatment center I could find in Boston: ones that you drive to for treatment, and ones that come to your house. Every single place was booked solid for days. (To me this suggests that there is most certainly lice going around more than usual lately — be alert!)
Finally, I found two options. First, there was a “lice treatment studio” 40 minutes away by car that specializes in simply combing out all the lice, nymphs, and nits — no oils, creams, shampoos, or liquid treatments at all. They get rave reviews, but I was suspicious it wouldn’t be enough, and a 40 minute drive is a long way for a gal who doesn’t have a car anymore. (I now regret discarding that option.)
That day, the second choice seemed best: a 2:30pm house call with a company that I will give the pseudonym here, “Lice Professionals,” that actually comes to your house to de-louse your family with a mysterious “nontoxic method.” You will soon see why I am giving this company a pseudonym.
It was 10am, and I had two young lice-encrusted kiddos to entertain for 4.5 hours while they sat and itched. We did Legos, read, drew from art prompts, cooked, and neatened up a little. My daughter had crazy pollen allergies, and went through six boxes of tissues blowing her nose whilst sneezing.
Ahh… nothing like spinning wheels with kids in a holding pattern, awaiting assistance. Good thing help was on the way soon, right? I just had to make it to 2:30, and we’d be fine.
Not All Professionals are Professional
2:30pm came and went… and no “Lice Professionals” showed up. I stood at the window, staring at the empty space, heart thumping. 3pm came, and my driveway was still empty. I gave the company a call.
“Oh, that’s odd that our lice technician isn’t there yet!” said the agent. “Let me try to call her, then call you back.” She didn’t call back.
3:30pm came and went. I called the company and they cooed, “The lice technician is not answering her phone. We don’t know where she is.”
Now, if you’ve ever tried to entertain two kids with bad lice while they wait an entire day for relief, you’ll understand why my tension was mounting. I began more thoroughly researching the “Lice Professionals” company online, and found a host of bad reviews — including one that revealed that their de-lousing method is pouring a bottle of olive oil on your head and combing.
3:45pm came and went. I called, and they replied, “There’s another technician who can come at 9pm if this one remains disappeared.” I said no thank you — we’ve already been waiting for hours, and at a certain point will just do it ourselves.
Home Lice Treatments
4pm arrived, and I called “Lice Professionals” to say… goodbye. I thereby made the decision to start home treatment myself. First we did the lice shampoo, even though it probably doesn’t even hurt the new “super lice” and consists of intense chemicals — I just wanted to feel like we were doing SOMETHING major to kick off this next phase in our attack plan, and the strong smell gave that effect.
At 4:20pm, the combing began… and OH MY GOSH it was gross. We sat on the porch using a metal fine toothed comb — which, I learned, is the best kind of comb to catch nits. The comb then gets wiped on wet paper towels that then went into sealed plastic bags, as is the recommended method. You can see the nymphs and lice crawling around on the paper. Gag!
Chopping off Hair for Lice Removal
By 5:30pm, I was sobbing from the continued volume of lice. The combs kept coming out full of bugs, and my kids’ thick hair was snarling in the comb teeth.
Desperate, I thus made another decision. I ran and grabbed a pair of clippers. I took a deep breath — then completely buzz-cut my son’s hair to a quarter inch. The lice-filled hair clumps caught in the wind and blew around. It was like something out of a surreal movie. “Did you make me bald?!” he gasped.
Then I turned to my daughter. “You have too much lice for me to get out alone,” I said. “Would you let me trim your hair with the longest setting of this buzzer?” She said yes. I tipped her head over the side of the porch and began cutting.
The lice-filled hair fell away, and then suddenly J started screaming. “I didn’t realize you were going to cut so much! What have you done?!”
So there I was, weeping… with my two sobbing and semi-bald children, in the middle of my busy neighborhood — lice hair tumbleweeds blowing around us like some twisted Western about Pediculus capitis. In chopping off their hair, I had made the best decision I could, with the energy I had. But it was not a popular one.
Combing as Effective Lice Treatment
Back upstairs, we rinsed off the tears and hair cuttings in the shower, dried with fresh towels, and ate dinner. At 6:30pm, the kids sat and watched a video, and I began combing again. How were there still so many lice, nymphs and nits???? Holy cow! How had it gotten this bad so quickly?
Though the kids were still furious about their haircuts, I showed them the critters coming off their heads and explained, “If your hair was longer, it would have been soooo much harder to get all these off. You helped the family by allowing the haircut. Thank you.” That seemed to calm them, along with assurances that I would ask their teacher to squash any haircut bullying.
I combed nits, nymphs, and lice from their heads from 6:30pm to 9:30pm — three additional hours on top of the pre-haircut round. By the end of that time, the comb was coming out clean. I knew this wasn’t the end of the endeavor… but it was a heck of a lot better than that morning.
Lice Treatment Delivery
Here’s an extra mind-blowing nugget to add to the comedy of errors of this day, continuing in the theme of asking for help and getting mud. At 7pm, I realized that I needed at least 3 good quality metal lice combs because I was losing time boiling the single one I was sharing between us three. (The second one I had broke at 6pm because I was using it so much.)
I decided UberEats pharmacy delivery service would be a worthwhile indulgence. I opened the app and ordered two metal lice combs and 6 shower caps (the latter being for an olive oil lice home remedy I wanted to try).
Thirty minutes later when the notification came that the delivery had arrived, I felt exceeding proud of myself for my self-sufficient resourcefulness… until I opened the bag and saw that instead of lice combs, the shopper had bought me “Men’s hair removal cream for intimate areas.” Instead of shower caps, he’d purchased two packs of rubber hair bands. WHAT?! Behold my photo, below, of the delivery.
UberEats was able to refund me the money when I messaged them what happened — but that didn’t make the lice comb appear. I went on boiling the old one instead, on and off for the rest of the night, adding hours to the process.
Washing Linens After Lice
During this whole day, as I tried to entertain the kids and arrange their lice treatment, I was also simultaneously working on disinfecting their linens. A hot water wash and hot dryer kills lice and nits, so I’d stripped their beds — and also washed all pillows, comforters, and of course, stuffed animals.
By 10pm, all of that kid bed laundry was done, and I managed to get the kids into bed (way past their bed time, but not midnight). PHEW! I then realized I hadn’t started the process of disinfecting my own bed, and I needed to get going on that, as the comforter and pillows needed at least 30 minutes on high heat in the dryer to kill the lice. My laundry room whirred on and on.
Self Lice Treatment
So, while divorce is a full time job, it also CREATES weird new jobs in life. Case in point: at 10:15pm that night, I had to check and treat my own head for lice, alone, as there was no cohabitating adult nearby to help. This was… an interesting challenge. Thank heavens I have short hair now!
Remember — at this point, I didn’t even know if I had lice, myself. I’d spent the past 24 hours (since 10pm the previous night, exactly) completely focused on my children… to the detriment of my own hygiene. Now it was time to find out, albeit at a time way past my usual bed time.
I started with the lice shampoo, then lightly dried my hair with a clean towel, and pulled out the trusty metal comb and paper towel. ARGHHHH. One look at that paper towel and I knew: I definitely had lice. I didn’t have it at all as bad as my kids… but I had it.
I texted everyone I’d been in close contact with to responsibly (and sheepishly) let them know they’d been exposed to the critters. Then I begin the combing process in earnest.
It was well past midnight by the time my comb started coming out clean. I kept combing until 1am for good measure — and for some meditative catharsis via repetitive motions, after this wild, wild day.
At 1am I got into bed at last, soothed that I was — at least for now — lice-free. I called my good friend in Hawaii because the miracle of time zones meant it was only 7pm there for her, and she could freely talk. Beloved friend that she is, she listened while I sobbed and laughed and told the whole ridiculous story of the day. Thank you, my friend! I went to sleep feeling loved.
Back to School After Lice
In the morning, I woke up early to switch out the kids’ jackets and backpacks (and tell the story anew to another friend by phone to have another cleansing laugh-cry), and begin to start a new series of many, many more hot laundry loads. When the kids got up, I did fine-toothed metal lice combing again, and after three small nits, the comb was coming out clean — as it did for me, too. Thank goodness!!!
I pacified my daughter’s worries about what people would think of her short, short hair (or “hairs”), and we walked to the school bus, regaling our bus buddies with stories from the… unique day before.
The Lice Prevention Plan
Just because the combs come out clean one day, it does NOT mean a family is out of the woods in the game of lice. Even a single neglected nit can start a whole new infestation, so you have to be vigilant.
My plan for the next two weeks is to zestfully comb all three of our heads of hair with the metal comb to keep out any new lice. (I finally did order two more combs this morning that actually arrived as combs, not hair remover.) I also buzz-cut most of my own hair.
I’ll wash everything that can be washed, and things that can’t be washed or vacuumed, I’ll try to store away for 1-2 weeks. I’ll change our pillow cases daily for several days, and I’m also going to try the Cetaphil Nuvo method of lice treatment this month with myself and the kids. Yea — I may need a Momcation after all of this.
Though I’m livid that the “Lice Professionals” never showed up (thus making us waste hours waiting for them), there is a major silver lining. Having now been IN THE TRENCHES of combing and treating the lice, nymphs, and nits, I now can confidently identify the critters, and feel empowered to tackle them, myself.
It feels good to finally hold that knowledge, myself, instead of being filled with fear and confusion because I was relying on others to know what to do. Now, here are the lessons I learned during this mad lice ordeal.
Lice Prevention and Treatment Tips
From our hands-on (and heads-on) experience with lice this week, here are the tips I wish someone had forcefully told me weeks ago.
1. Proactively, periodically check for lice.
I am very close with my children, but it never occurred to me to really peer into their hair — until it was so itchy that they asked me to look. That was a huge mistake that you and I can now avoid.
In the future, I will check my kids for lice EVERY WEEK (yes, I just set a calendar reminder for it). It takes just a few minutes, and can save massive amounts of time by heading off a full-blown infestation early. But how to check correctly? Read #2.
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2. Check for lice by comb — and stock your cabinets now.
You can sometimes spot lice (especially nits) by just looking at the hair — especially behind the ears — but the BEST way to check for lice is to use a metal lice comb. I implore you to buy one for each member of the household, and have them on hand before emergency need arises (and UberEats sends you something random instead).
I have and recommend the “Nit Free Terminator Comb” (it’s soooo good, and not too expensive), and the highly-rated “Licemeister” comb. The former is nearly all metal, while the latter has a durable plastic handle which can still be boiled, and comes with a little “flosser” to clean between the comb’s teeth.
To use the comb to check for lice, get the hair damp (adding a little conditioner if it’s long or tangly), then pass the comb through one chunk and wipe it onto a damp white paper towel. Lice, nymphs, and nits are not white — they’re gray or tan — so you’ll be able to see them on the light paper if they’re there, thanks to the color juxtaposition. Do this several times on different parts of the head. By using this method, if there’s lice, you’ll know.
3. Keep hair short or tied back.
Lice can’t jump — they can only crawl. Therefore, they are usually spread by close head-to-head contact, and sometimes by sharing items like hats or headphones that go between kids. Though you can TRY to instruct a kiddo to keep their head away from the head of another kid, maintaining short or pulled-back hair helps the equation.
I’ll also add that, apart from the drama it caused, it was 100% the right choice in my case to buzz-cut my kids’ hair short once I reached hour zillion of trying to lice comb. I have no idea how families of kids with longer hair do de-lousing — but if you are not planning to do a hair chop, re-read my tip #1 to stay on top of prevention.
4. Know that chemical treatments may not work anymore.
It was news to me that lice shampoos are no longer considered very effective anymore, as we now have “super lice.” This then brings us into a battle of which other methods are best — from the Cetaphil Nuvo Method, to the olive oil method, to everything in between.
You’re welcome to research for hours as I did, but the ultimate conclusion I came to is that the #1 key is combing with a fine-toothed metal comb (ideally paired with some thick conditioner-like solution to ease combing and slow the critters). Re-read tip #2, and stock up on those combs!
5. Give yourself time.
During all the hours of that overwhelming day, I kept saying in my head: “Just take one step at a time.” Treating lice is a LONG process. Even if you hire someone, de-lousing and nit-picking takes hours — so take it slow and steady, and stop to rest, take movement breaks, or get support when needed. Please remember to drink water throughout the day; it’s extremely important to stay hydrated during high stress.
If you are able to take time off work, you will likely need to do so, so do take that sick day… maybe even two or three. Your colleagues will thank you for not infesting the office.
For reference, I needed to take off three full days of work to finish all the lice eradication jobs needed: One day for de-lousing and sterilizing beds, the second day for hot washing all the rest of the linens and vacuuming the floors and furniture, and the third day for laundering or bagging the straggling stuffed animals, brushes and combs, hats, jackets — plus doing some much-needed self-care to heal from the process.
6. Consider conflicting information.
Every piece of advice on the internet about lice treatments is refuted by another article, so you’re going to have to make some tough calls and use your best judgment when putting together your own lice eradication plan. For example, the question of what solution to put on the head — lice shampoo, pesticides, Cetaphil, olive oil, coconut oil, eucalyptus oil, conditioner, rosemary, mayonnaise, vinegar, or just water — has numerous pros and cons for each method. Every site that tries to influence you towards one cure disparages the others!
Frankly, the only piece of lice advice that everyone seems to agree on is that combing works better than anything. (But the advice on how to wipe the comb, sterilize it, and dispose of the paper towels does vary!)
In another example, some people say that nits live for two weeks off the body, so you should bag up anything you can’t wash for that full time. Others say that you only need to worry about them for a day or two, or that nits rarely hatch without a warm human host to rest upon, so just focus on treating heads instead of household items. My take is to do as much household sterilizing as possible, but know that heads are the most important to focus on — checking and re-checking; combing and re-combing.
7. Beware autocorrect.
Know that if you’re trying to text folks in a hurry about your predicament, your phone will almost certainly autocorrect “lice” to “life” — leading to such confusing texts as, “We have life!” Though I’m not happy we had lice, I sure AM thankful that we have life.
8. Believe in yourself.
It may be that you end up in a situation like me, in which you freak out and call for help — and no help comes. (Or it comes in the form of a totally useless tube of men’s hair removal cream for intimate areas plus 200 rubber bands.)
Having survived these past 24 hours, however, I can tell you one thing: the knowledge and skills gained from being forced to push through something you thought you couldn’t do… well, that’s worth its weight in combs.
What have been YOUR experiences with lice prevention and treatments? Do share!
Want more life lessons? Check out “How to Stop Losing Things,” my step by step article on how to stop drinking alcohol, replete with a personal explanation of why I made that decision, and “11 Ways to Improve Your Life.
The author, Lillie Marshall, is a 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 4.2 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!