It seems no sooner than you have said "back to school" and your child comes home infested with head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis). Why? Probably because it is estimated that 10-12 million children in the United States alone are affected each year. The number could even be much higher, because many cases are not reported to physicians, so there is no way of knowing for sure how many cases there actually are. According to Dr. Dirk M. Elston, M.D. from Geisinger Medical Center, Danville, PA, there is an epidemic of lice infestation, if not a pandemic, out there!1 And, the incidences of infestations, especially during the winter months, may be on the increase.2
Suffice it to say, if you have children in school, you probably have dealt with or probably will deal with at least one infestation of head lice. A few years ago, the outbreaks were blamed on the less fortunate of the population, but we now know that head lice are equally at home in any environment. Long hair, short hair, curly, frizzy, clean, greasy, you name it, those pesky creatures are not at all fussy. In fact, if you have hair they're happy! The good news is they cannot fly, jump, swim, pole-vault or hop. So, it is fairly difficult to become infested. They can, however, walk pretty fast! This is probably why elementary school children are the most likely to pass on a louse or two, because young children are quite tactile when interacting with each other. And that's all it takes!
Head lice are also passed around by children sharing hair and head accessories. Please teach elementary-school aged children not to share hairbrushes or hats. Check to see if your child's preschool has a dress-up station complete with hats. If so, you may want to forward this research report to the preschool staff!
Also be careful about hats in public places intended for communal use. One 7-year old girl became infested with lice after wearing a "birthday sombrero" at a restaurant for only the length of time it took the waiters to sing "Happy Birthday." Her parents realized she was infested days later.
One fertilized female head louse can lay up to ten eggs per day, which are literally glued to the hair shaft near to the scalp, incubating in the warmth of the child's head. The eggs (nits) take about seven to ten days to hatch into the first nymph stage. It takes another seven to ten days for the head lice to pass through two more nymph stages and become capable of laying eggs.3,4 Adult head lice have a life span of approximately four weeks, but can only live about 48 hours if they become separated from the human host. Unfortunately, by the time the head starts to really itch, the infestation has already taken hold. Both nymphs and adults feed every few hours on the host's blood, and it is their saliva, and possibly a reaction to their feces that causes the itching. In some cases, a rash may appear on the scalp and around the neck area. With constant scratching, it can become infected. Fortunately, head lice have not been known to carry any major diseases. They are only an irritation and not a threat to the host.5
It is ironic that the main threat to the infested child seems to be from the organophosphate poisons used on the child's head to control the infestation!6 Over-the-counter and prescription treatments containing organophosphates such as Lindane7,8,9 and Malathion10 are bioaccumulative, which means the organophosphates accumulate in the body. The initial treatment may not cause a problem. But a lice infestation can occur several times a year and a child may have many treatments during the course of their school days. Conversely, it has been known for a child to have a very nasty reaction from just one application.11 Recently, the FDA issued a strict warning letter to the maker of a Lindane lice treatment requesting a re-evaluation of its marketing materials. The FDA warned that the marketing materials "misled consumers by downplaying the rare, but serious, risks of the treatments." 12, 13
Children are at greater risk of neurological poisoning due to their small size and immature immune systems. Some schools operate on a "no nit policy" and your child could be sent home from school until he/she is completely free of lice and nits. The stigma could drive a parent to use these toxic poisons in an effort to get their child back into school. Even the treatments classed as less toxic such as the pyrethroids (e.g. permethrin and pyrethrin) can cause problems for susceptible people.14,15,16 But, it is more likely that they poison the child rather than the head lice! There are an increasing number of cases where the head lice are becoming resistant to these poisons.17,18
With all this in mind, parents can't be blamed for turning to the more unconventional treatments, and there are quite a few around, from combing a commercial brand of mouthwash through your hair to spreading lard on your head and donning a bath cap for three days (not something a child will easily do!). Therefore, it must be a comfort to know that Melaleuca oil19,20 is becoming a much more accepted treatment for head lice as more clinical studies are carried out. Both tepinen-4-ol 21 and cineole 1,8,22 the two major constituents in Melaleuca oil, have shown to help eradicate head lice.23
Many parents are supportive of a pesticide-free preschool environment. A summer 2007 report from PANNA (Pesticide Action Network North America) followed the efforts of one preschool during a head lice outbreak, and even recommends adding tea tree oil (Melaleuca oil) into shampoo or olive oil.24
And, because cases of scabies in schools are on the increase too2 it is good that Melaleuca oil is an effective eradication treatment for scabies as well.25
Before I finish this article I would like to give you some experiential, rather than anecdotal, information for clearing a head lice infestation. Last year, I treated my daughter's hair by saturating it with Melaleuca Original Shampoo for twelve minutes. She was quite squeamish at the thought of having a head full of dead and dying creatures, so I combed them out with a nit comb. Melaleuca Original Shampoo also conditions the hair, so it really is not an inconvenience.26 I actually repeated this at 5, 10, 15 and 20 days. On the 1st and 15th day, I added an extra three drops of Melaleuca oil to every tablespoon of shampoo (she uses quite a lot because she has long, thick curly hair). I have to stress here that when using Melaleuca oil it should initially be patch tested on a small area of skin to be sure your child does not have a reaction to it. I'm pleased to report that she has been free of head lice ever since. Knock on wood!
My family uses Melaleuca Original Shampoo on a daily basis which contains melaleuca oil and naturally repels lice without puting toxic chemicals on their scalps. If you are wondering where to get some of this miraculous shampoo, shoot an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with melaleuca shampoo in the subject box.
ReferencesResearch Report - Head Lice and Melaleuca Oil
Researched and Written by Karen MacKenzie 2006
Revised by RM Barry Publications' Jessica Alvarez 2008
Information retrieved November 15, 2012 from http://www.rmbarry.com/research/lice-melaleuca-oil.html
1. "Lice" Fact Sheet http://www.emedicine.com/derm/topic229.htm. Emedicine by WebMD.
2. Downs AM, Harvey I, Kennedy CT. The epidemiology of head lice and scabies in the UK. Epidemiol Infect. 1999 Jun;122(3):471-7.
3."What you should Know About Head Lice" http://www.state.nj.us/health/cd/documents/f_headlice.pdf
4. Here are some images of nits to help with accurate identification. http://www.medicinenet.com/head_lice_pictures_slideshow/article.htm
5. Frydenberg A, Starr M. Head lice. Aust Fam Physician. 2003 Aug;32(8):607-11.
6. "Jesse's Story" at headlice.org http://www.headlice.org/jesseproject/jesse.htm
7. "Prescriptions For Harm" http://www.headlice.org/news/2003/pr040103.htm
8. Lindane: serious neurological effects. Prescrire Int. 2006 Apr;15(82):61.
9. Seth V, Ahmad RS, Suke SG, Pasha ST, Bhattacharya A, Banerjee BD. Lindane-induced immunological alterations in human poisoning cases. Clin Biochem. 2005 Jul;38(7):678-80
10. "Headlice Treatment Linked To Birth Defects" http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/print.html?path=GE0204/S00029.htm
11. "Malathion for scabies made user ill and didn't solve the problem" http://www.getipm.com/articles/letters/malathion-scabies.htm
12.Warning Letter to Morton Pharmaceuticals from the FDA FDA web site archives of warning letters. December, 2007.
13. FDA Cites Toxic Risk of Popular Head-Lice Drug.USA Today, Health & Behavior, January 31, 2008.
14. "PERMETHRIN" http://www.epa.gov/oppsrrd1/REDs/factsheets/permethrin_fs.htm
15. PERMETHRIN http://www.getipm.com/articles/pyrethrin-shampoo.htm
16. "Mother writes about Nix for headlice and her miscarriage at 8 weeks." http://www.getipm.com/articles/letters/headlice-nix3.htm
17. Downs, A.M.R., Stafford, K.A., Hunt, L.P., Ravenscroft, J.C. & Coles, G.C. Widespread insecticide resistance in head lice to the over-the-counter pediculocides in England British Journal of Dermatology 146 (1), 88-93.doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2133.2002.04473.x (2002)
18. "Head lice 'are becoming indestructible'" at headlice.org http://www.headlice.org/news/2006/061406_indestructible.html
19. Melaleuca Oil for Head Lice at Livestrong.com.
20. Treatments for Head Lice by Tash Hughes, 2004.
21. Priestley CM, Burgess IF, Williamson EM. Lethality of essential oil constituents towards the human louse, Pediculus humanus, and its eggs. Fitoterapia. 2006 Jun;77(4):303-9.
22. Toloza AC, Zygadlo J, Cueto GM, Biurrun F, Zerba E, Picollo MI. Fumigant and repellent properties of essential oils and component compounds against permethrin-resistant Pediculus humanus capitis (Anoplura: Pediculidae) from Argentina. J Med Entomol. 2006 Sep;43(5):889-95.
23. Mills C, Cleary BJ, Gilmer JF, Walsh JJ. Inhibition of acetyl cholinesterase by Tea Tree oil. J Pharm Pharmacol. 2004 Mar;56(3):375-9.
24. When Lice Attack: How to Nip Nits in the Bud. Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA), Summer 2007.
25. Walton SF, McKinnon M, Pizzutto S, Dougall A, Williams E, Currie BJ. Acaricidal activity of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil: in vitro sensitivity of sarcoptes scabiei var hominis to terpinen-4-ol. Arch Dermatol. 2004 May;140(5):563-6.
26. "The Benefits of Tea Tree" http://www.aztecfreenet.org/makingscents/articles/Tea_Tree_Article/tea_tree_article.html