skip navigation , health centers and clinics , search , accessibility statement , Página en español ,
Contra Costa Health Services
contact us

Topics > Healthy Outlook > Treat Head Lice Quickly, Thoroughly

Treat Head Lice Quickly, Thoroughly

Published by Contra Costa Times

Posted on Fri., Oct. 17, 2007
By Francie Wise, RN, MPH

THE SCHOOL YEAR is in full swing again, and so are head lice outbreaks. Lice infected almost every classroom at one local elementary school. These pesky little insects spread fast, so it's important to treat your children quickly and thoroughly.

Treating head lice is simple, but it takes time and persistence. Over-the-counter medications are effective, and some local hair salons offer treatments.

Parents should inspect their children's heads if there is an outbreak at their school or day care, even if the child doesn't complain of itching.

Often, though, the scalp does itch. This is caused by the lice biting the scalp, which is annoying but not dangerous.

Lice eggs, called nits, are tiny white or gray specks that cling to the hair and can best be seen on the hair shaft close to the scalp at the back of the head. They look like dandruff but cling to the hair shaft and, unlike dandruff, are hard to remove.

Prevention tips

Head lice travel by crawling. They don't fly or jump like fleas. Group settings, such as day care centers and schools where children come into close contact, are perfect environments for lice to spread.

Head lice (one is called a louse) are spread from one infested person to another through close contact, so:

  • Teach children to avoid sharing hats, combs/brushes, helmets, barrettes and headphones, especially during a lice outbreak.
  • Clean floor mats regularly, especially those used for tumbling and group play.


  • Use a comprehensive approach. Treat the whole household, clothes, towels and bedding, play areas and close contacts. Nonprescription lotions containing pyrethrin or permethrin treat lice effectively, but household items such as mayonnaise and olive oil do not work.
  • Follow directions for using any anti-lice lotion or medication. Treat everyone in the household, even those who don't seem to have head lice.
  • Lotions do not kill the nits, so comb out and dispose of the nits after you have used the lotion.
  • Keep removing the nits daily with a nit comb or by picking them out or cutting the hair where the egg is attached until no more nits can be found.
  • Soak combs, brushes and hair products in soapy water for one hour, or boil them for five minutes.
  • Wash all bedding, towels and clothes in hot water, and dry in a hot dryer, at the same time as you treat the whole family for head lice.
  • Seal airtight for at least 10 days any playthings that cannot be washed, such as soft toys or pillows. Use a Ziploc or tightly tied plastic bag.
  • Vacuum and then clean with a mild disinfectant shared surfaces such as tumbling mats and couches.
  • Never use household cleaners on your child's head or body.

If the head lice problem persists despite treatment, ask teachers and other parents to check children for lice. If two treatments of over-the-counter lice products don't work, call your doctor.

For more information, visit the Contra Costa Health Services Web site at The state health department has useful head lice brochures for parents, schools and child care facilities available in both English and Spanish on its Web site under the head lice section:

Wise is director of communicable disease programs and public health nursing for Contra Costa Health Services.

Contra Costa County home page