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COVID-19 Lockdowns Slowed but Did Not Stop Spread of Lice

With youngsters back in school, the spread of lice is growing. Many parents use home remedies to stop infestations without insecticides.

Last year, while the world was locked down against the spread of COVID-19, lots of other transmissible conditions dropped nearly out of sight. The cold and flu season was extraordinarily light, for example. Presumably masking, handwashing and social distancing all work against transmission of the viruses that cause respiratory tract infections.

Lockdowns Slowed the Spread of Lice:

One other condition that humans usually share in person-to-person contact is lice infestation. Researchers in Buenos Aires, Argentina, reported that the prevalence of lice dropped significantly during mandatory isolation and school closing in 2020 (Parasitology Research, Feb. 2021). There were still a lot of kids with lice, though. The scientists reported a drop from 70% to 44%.

Now, schools have re-opened. Even though children are being told to stay six feet apart, they probably are not being consistent about that. Parents and professional nitpickers report that they are seeing a resurgence of lice.

Confirming the epidemiology on lice is not the highest priority for public health personnel right now. After all, head lice do not carry diseases. They are considered a nuisance instead of a real threat.

Nonetheless, most parents would rather not have to deal with this unpleasant situation. Aside from the gross factor, children identified as infested may suffer humiliation. Moreover, some schools have a no-nit policy to prevent the spread of lice that may keep kids home from school for days. That is not a welcome prospect after a year in which too many youngsters missed out on in-person school.

Can You Treat Lice Without Insecticides?

Conventional lice shampoos containing insecticides such as permethrin have been losing effectiveness. That’s because lice have evolved to become resistant. Many readers of this column have discovered home remedies that can be helpful against head lice.

Suffocate Lice With Cetaphil:

One popular approach is drenching the hair and scalp in Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser. Using a blow-dryer hardens the cleanser so it can be left on overnight. A dermatologist actually published open trials on this technique nearly two decades ago, claiming 96% effectiveness (Pediatrics, Sep. 2004). Many readers report that it is very helpful.

The Cetaphil treatment works by suffocating the lice. Other options that work in a similar manner include olive oil, mayonnaise or petroleum jelly.

Killing Lice by Smothering Them:

Q. My daughter had head lice several times when she was very young and her hair was long. The lice shampoos did not work at all.

Finally we used mayonnaise in her hair. We applied it from the scalp to the ends and then wrapped her head with plastic wrap. That was left on for at least two hours while she watched her favorite DVD. When we washed her hair, you could see the lice rinsing out. We did this every three days for two weeks to make sure that they were all gone and that we stopped the spread of lice.

A. Many readers report that smothering lice with mayonnaise, coconut oil or petroleum jelly works better than lice shampoo. In many places, lice have developed resistance to the chemicals in the shampoos. Adding vinegar to the rinse can help loosen nits. All such treatments require persistence.

Getting petroleum jelly out of hair, however, is a challenge. Many parents who try this approach become frustrated with that problem. Apparently applying mineral oil before using shampoo (or Dawn dish detergent) can help dissolve the petroleum jelly and ease its removal. Finally, they wash the scalp again with regular shampoo. Others say Goop (mechanics’ hand cleanser) helps cut the grease of petroleum jelly.

Plant Compounds to Fight the Spread of Lice:

Some plant compounds are toxic to lice as well. Rosemary oil, for example, has been studied and found to have antiparasitic activity (Future Science OA, April 2018).

Numerous readers swear by old-fashioned amber Listerine, with its herbal oils of thymol, eucalyptol and menthol plus alcohol. They soak the hair in the mouthwash and cover the head with a towel for an hour or two. Then they use a fine-tooth comb to remove nits after washing the Listerine out. This procedure may need to be repeated a few times.

Nits are less susceptible to these treatments, so removing the next generation as it hatches is crucial for stopping the spread of lice. After a bout with lice, old clichés about nit-picking and fine-tooth combs take on new meaning. Tedious though it is, combing the hair to get rid of lice eggs (nits) is an essential part of any lice treatment plan.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Galassi F et al, "Head lice were also affected by COVID-19: a decrease on Pediculosis infestation during lockdown in Buenos Aires." Parasitology Research, Feb. 2021. DOI: 10.1007/s00436-020-07038-y
  • Pearlman DL, "A simple treatment for head lice: dry-on, suffocation-based pediculicide." Pediatrics, Sep. 2004. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2003-0666-F
  • Andrade JM et al, "Rosmarinus officinalis L.: an update review of its phytochemistry and biological activity." Future Science OA, April 2018. doi: 10.4155/fsoa-2017-0124
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