How to get rid of head lice

When CHOICE staffer Kate Browne's family suffered a head lice attack, she went on a search for the most effective treatment.

Outwit the nits

Two years ago it finally happened, we suffered an invasion. Somehow for quite some time we'd dodged the curse that had befallen other families, but now it was our turn.

Yep, our eldest daughter had head lice.

Critter cringe

She'd been complaining of an itchy head for a few days but I'd just put it down to clever bedtime stalling tactics. Turns out she was telling the truth, and to make matters worse it wasn't me or her dad who discovered the critters, it was her teacher. That meant I was the recipient of what those of us in the parenting game call 'the phone call of shame'.

"Hello, can you please come and pick Ivy up as soon as possible? She has head lice."

Head lice, nits, creepy crawlies, curse of the playground ... whatever you want to call them, head lice are the scourge of parenting life. From littlies in day care who just love putting their heads together right through to teens taking selfies (yes, selfies can spread nits, according to at least one expert), head lice are regular visitors in many Australian homes.

So many treatments

En route to school to pick up my infested child I stopped in the local chemist armed with my credit card ready to buy ALL the things that promised to eliminate the beasts from my daughter's head permanently. Truth be told, when I got there I realised if I had bought all the things I would have gone bankrupt as there was an entire row of pricey potions, lotions, sprays and devices all claiming to eliminate the beasties in no time at all, as well as products promising to stop them getting back on once I'd gotten them off. Not knowing any better I threw down a small fortune on a selection of products and got to work on my daughter's head.

Two years later, we've had head lice visit our family more than a few times. On one memorable occasion they even stowed away with us on a holiday to Thailand where we all had them. Despite me not knowing a word of Thai, the sales assistant in the pharmacy and I were both fluent in the international language of head lice – I mimed frantically scratching my head and she smiled sympathetically and handed over a plastic comb and a bottle of product.

Still got an itch to scratch? For more information and advice, see our head lice buying guide.

What works?

I know I'm not the only parent to have lamented the sheer amount of dollars spent on head lice treatments but since I've tackled this itchy issue both for CHOICE and for my own sanity, and after research and conversation with experts, I can share with you some good news (and a teensy bit of bad news).

Let's get the bad news out of the way first: no one product is 100 per cent effective at removing head lice, and no product has been proven to 'repel' head lice in the first place despite the claims you will see on the chemist and supermarket shelves.

But before you fall into a deep itchy despair there is some good news, especially when it comes to your wallet. One of the most effective treatments is cheap and at least half of this treatment is probably in your bathroom right now. Because one of the most effective treatments for head lice is a bottle of hair conditioner and a lice comb.

The conditioner and comb method

So here's what to do: grab a bottle of whatever conditioner takes your fancy (the thicker the better) then squirt it liberally all over your darling's completely dry hair. The conditioner will block up the head lice's breathing apparatus and stun them into submission for quite some time.

Next, you'll need to have bought a basic nit comb (a round-tipped metal one works best and doesn't cost much), grab some paper towel and work your way through your kid's hair methodically with the comb. White conditioner works best as you'll be able to see the stunned lice you collect as you comb. Wipe the comb on the paper towel with every sweep, and once you're done you stick the paper towel into a plastic bag and then in the bin.

What's the catch? You'll need to repeat it every few days for 10 days to break the life cycle of the lice. While it isn't fast, on the upside your child's hair will look soft, glossy and gorgeous after days of deep conditioning.

Stopping head lice from coming back

There's no evidence that anything you put on your child's hair will act as a repellent. Some studies suggest that because head lice are crawling insects that can't jump or fly, once they're on your child's head they can't 'choose' to leave, even if they want to.

So while there's not much you can do to keep head lice away in the first place (though tying up long hair can help) you can catch any new arrivals by running your lice comb and conditioner through your kids' hair once a week. So as you grab a bottle of conditioner and get to work its good to remember the words of the famous old Pantene TV commercial. When it comes to lice removal "it won't happen overnight, but it will happen."

And as a consolation for the hours of combing, maybe you can spend what you save on expensive head lice treatments on a good bottle of wine or chocolates, just to keep your spirits up while you get to work with the comb.

To get more information on treatments, check our head lice buying guide.

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