No one ever wants to get that call from the kids' school, but with up to 12 million infestations affecting American children each year, head lice pose a bigger nuisance than you think.
The blood-sucking louses usually make their way from head to head, leaving children (and occasionally their caregivers), scratching, itching and generally uncomfortable with idea of teeny-tiny parasites crawling all over their scalps. While adult louses only grow as big as sesame seeds, you can often spot them with a fine-toothed comb and a magnifying lens, or enlist a healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis.
Getting rid of lice was always painstaking work, but battling current infestations just got even harder thanks to "super lice." That's right: Instead of just regular, nasty, ol' lice, a new, resistant strain of lice can survive the most popular weapons of choice: permethrin and pyrethrin. If this mutant breed has taken over your community, over-the-counter treatments like Nix and Rid won't work the same way.
The Tools You'll Need
To cover your bases, the Good Housekeeping Institute recommends Vamousse Head Lice Treatment ($22, .com) and Lice Defense shampoo ($15, .com). The pesticide-free kit uses sodium chloride — the same chemical as table salt — and claims to kill both adult lice and nits, the tiny eggs. Another Lab favorite is the Lice MD Lice and Egg Treatment ($11, .com).
A pediatrician can also prescribe stronger meds if necessary, usually after the first or second round of OTC treatment. Natroba, Sklice and Ulesfia are three drugs that experts prefer to use these days, says pediatric dermatologist Albert C. Yan, MD, FAAD, FAAP. Don't even bother with "natural" remedies like olive oil, mayonnaise and vinegar.
"Other than making your kids smell like a salad, they don't work that well," Yan says.
Always use a grooved metal nit comb — like the Nit Free Terminator Comb ($10, .com) — during and after treatment to determine if the lil' bloodsuckers are really gone. More importantly, it'll remove any remaining viable eggs before they hatch and wreak havoc once again. Fair warning: Don't panic if you see "eggs" more than a half-inch away from the scalp. These empty nit casings don't signify an active infestation, Yan says.
Taking Care of Your House, Too
As for the rest of your home, skip sterilizing it from floor to ceiling, advises the Centers for Disease Control. Transmission of head lice via secondary objects is possible, but unlikely. Live lice can't survive more than two days without a host, and they've specifically evolved to only really crawl along hair shafts.
That said, definitely throw an infested person's recently used clothes and bedding in the laundry on hot water and high heat cycles. Soak combs and brushes in hot water (above 130 degrees Fahrenheit) for more than five minutes, and stuff non-washable belongings in a sealed plastic bag for several days. Vacuuming the floor and furniture isn't a bad idea either, but you don't have to go crazy with it.
Just rest assured that as annoying as head lice can be, the itch-causing pests don't carry any diseases. Attack the parasites with the right tools and expert advice, and the scratching will go away for good.