Head lice, we're often told, is a normal part of childhood. Yes, it's a nuisance that can be difficult to eliminate, but no, it isn't harmful and shouldn't be anything to fear. But when you actually discover bugs crawling through your child's hair, it's difficult to remain calm.

Fortunately, you really can survive (and get rid of) head lice. You just need to understand how they work, and what your best options are for getting rid of them.

What Is Head Lice?

According to KidsHealth.org, "the head louse is a tiny, wingless parasitic insect that lives among human hairs and feeds on extremely small amounts of blood from the scalp." Once on a child's head, lice lay eggs (referred to as nits) close to the scalp. When these nits first hatch they are known as nymphs, but within 1-2 weeks they become fully grown adult head lice.

A few facts about head lice that are important to understand:

  • Lice do not spread disease. They are a nuisance, and will cause an itchy scalp, but they will not make your child sick.
  • Lice are extremely contagious. They cannot fly, but they move quickly, and are most frequently spread through head-to-head contact, particularly among children.
  • An adult louse is about the size of a sesame seed, and is tan to grayish-white in color.
  • An adult louse can survive away from the human head for up to 2 days.
  • Nits tend to cluster behind the ears and at the bottom of the neck. When treating, it is essential to remove all live nits in addition to the lice in order to prevent re-infestation.

Head Lice Treatment Options

There are many, many options when it comes to treating and getting rid of head lice, and it's easy to get overwhelmed. A few you may want to consider include:

1. Over-the-Counter Treatments

Products like RID and NIX, which are readily available in most drug stores, are some of the most commonly used head lice treatments. You'll apply a cream to the hair in order to kill the adult lice, and after washing this out, you'll need to remove all eggs and nits with a fine tooth comb.

2. Prescription Medication

Sklice Lotion, a new prescription medication which contains ivermectin, was recently approved for the treatment of head lice. Sklice is thought to be more effective at killing both lice and their eggs, so nit-combing is not required after treatment.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a very harsh chemical, and it tends to be expensive even with insurance.

3. Natural Treatments

If you're concerned about toxins in traditional head lice treatments, there are many natural remedies available. Mayonnaise, vinegar, tea tree oil, and rubbing alcohol are among the most commonly used home treatments. You can also choose a product such as Quick Nits, which is non-toxic and contains no chemical pesticides.

4. Nit Removal

Unless you use Sklice (and maybe even if you do), you'll still need to remove all live nits from your child's hair. Unless a treatment kills every single egg that has been laid (which many do not), the potential still exists for new lice to hatch in your child's hair. Invest in a good nit comb, and take the time to remove every single nit.

This process sounds daunting, and it is. But it is also absolutely necessary.

5. Thorough Cleaning

Because head lice can live away from the human head for up to 2 days, it is essential to wash and dry all bedding, pillows, and even stuffed animals on the hottest settings possible. Vacuum every surface in your home, and put anything that cannot be laundered into a tightly sealed bag for at least 2 weeks.

6. Notification of Friends and Family

If head lice is going around your child's school, you need to be sure that teachers and other parents are aware of the issue. There's nothing worse than getting rid of head lice, only to find a few weeks later that your child has it again because head lice are still scurrying around their classroom.

Have your kids had head lice? How do you treat it?