Don’t Panic! A Simple Guide to Preparing for and Treating Lice

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(Stop scratching your head – I know you are.)

We recently had an outbreak of lice in our home. Unfortunately, my youngest and I ended up with it. Luckily, we caught it early, and it wasn’t extensive, but it was still unpleasant and a lot of work.

Being a good survival mom, I was prepared with a nit comb, but I didn’t know much about treating it. All I knew was that chemical-laden shampoo and tea tree oil could help.

The first, and possibly most important, thing to know is that there is one, and only one, way to avoid using a nit comb: shave the head entirely.

Unless you are talking about a very little boy in summer, this is almost certainly overkill and should be avoided. Just know that you need a GOOD nit comb and that you’ll spend a lot of time using it. You’ll also have to do many loads of laundry.

image: treating lice using a nitpicking comb

Treating Lice at Home

Lice Shampoo

We used the chemical-laden shampoo simply because as soon as a kid uses it, they can return to school. However, there are a few problems with it, from my point of view.

  1. It uses extremely heavy-duty chemicals applied directly to your scalp.
  2. Lice are becoming resistant to it.
  3. It can cause problems for asthmatics. While I didn’t react to it, my son’s asthma got noticeably worse as soon as we used it.
  4. The shampoo wasn’t even effective for me.

Would I use it again? Not voluntarily.

Will I judge anyone else who uses it? Definitely not, because if it works, you are done faster and with less mess than going through another route. Plus, schools like it.

Tea Tree Oil

Does tea tree oil kill head lice?

As it turns out, tea tree oil is only helpful if you don’t have lice yet. Once you have them, it doesn’t do much.


My son and I felt like vinegar made a huge difference in getting rid of lice compared to the lice shampoo. We drenched our hair in vinegar, put on a shower cap, wrapped a towel around our necks, and left it that way for at least an hour.

After that, I combed through with a nit comb until I wasn’t seeing anything else. Then we washed our hair and went through it with a nit comb again.

As with many home remedies, it isn’t clear how long it has to stay on, but I felt an hour was long enough for the acidity of vinegar to damage the lice, nits, and eggs without aggravating our scalps too much. I have read as little as ten minutes is recommended, but that doesn’t seem like enough time to make a real difference.

How does it work? The acidity causes eggs to no longer adhere to the hair shaft, becoming non-viable. From what I have read, vinegar doesn’t do anything to harm or kill adult lice.

I do know that vinegar is not a growth medium. It isn’t good for any other living organism, so how could lice be different? If nothing else, it seems like it should make them more vulnerable to other methods, like olive oil.

Using vinegar every other day or more will help ensure that even if there are still some living lice, new ones won’t be hatching. You should be done in approximately three weeks when their life cycle ends. You can be done sooner if you alternate vinegar to kill the eggs and olive oil to kill the living lice.

Olive Oil

This is the process recommended by the delousing service we used. It relies on olive oil and a good nit comb and is a THREE-WEEK PROCESS. This is a great use for rancid olive oil; old vegetable oil works, too.

Lice can hold their breath for six hours or longer. Therefore, you’ll need to coat your hair with olive oil and leave it on for at least eight hours at a time. The easiest way is, of course, to have it on your head when you sleep. This will suffocate and kill the adult lice while conditioning your scalp and hair.

This is the process:

  1. To protect flooring, put something down to absorb any oil spills. Old towels work great.
  2. Be sure everyone wears an old shirt because the oil will probably slide down their neck and onto their shirt. Wrap a towel around the neck while you are nitpicking and applying oil.
  3. Thoroughly coat each person’s hair with olive oil and let it sit for 8 hours.
  4. Go through their hair in small sections using a nit comb.
  5. Have them wash out the olive oil using a small amount of dish detergent. Shampoo doesn’t cut through the oil as well as dish detergent.
  6. Dry their hair.
  7. Go through their dry hair with a nit comb.
  8. Re-apply the olive oil and cover with plastic or an inexpensive, disposable shower cap. It is critical that the roots and scalp are well-coated since that’s where lice hang out.  (The disposable shower caps are more comfortable than reusable ones made of thicker plastic. Use your discretion with younger children as sleeping in a plastic cap might be dangerous for them.)
  9. Continue this process with everyone in the family.

How often to repeat the olive oil treatment?

Anyone who has lice, even once, needs to repeat the olive oil treatment for three more days (four days in a row, total).

After that, they need to do it five more times, with treatments three days apart.

Anyone who does not have lice should do this treatment twice a week for three weeks.

Protect Bedding

Clearly, no one wants their bedding stained with olive oil, so protect them. Therefore, cover pillows that aren’t easy to wash with a plastic bag under the pillowcase and toss the pillowcase in the laundry after olive-oil nights.

We have very nice memory foam pillows that I would hate to toss in the launSo they They were put to the side for two weeks to ensure anything on them was dead. During this time, I used easily washed throw pillows with pillowcases that I washed daily.

Natural Remedies

I read a lot about how there is no proof these work for treating lice, but the company we called to our home uses nothing but olive oil and nitpicking. So it boils down to this: natural remedies for parasites like lice take time and a lot of it.

You can’t put olive oil or vinegar in your hair and rinse it out after ten minutes as you do with lice shampoo. That won’t do anything. Lice have evolved over thousands of years to survive on humans. It takes real effort to get rid of them.

Professional Delousing Services

Some companies will come to your house to help you start the cleaning process and to check the head of every family member. The estimate I received was approximately four hours for four people, although it can VERY easily be more, especially if anyone has long, thick, or curly hair. It takes nearly an hour to check one head with no lice, so it will take longer (and cost more) if the infestation is established.

It is important to get everyone checked because it is easy to spread among family members as they are more likely to experience head-to-head contact. According to the CDC, it is uncommon, though not impossible, to spread lice through shared items, like hairbrushes and clothing. It is also important to have everyone learn how to nitpick. Literally.

After three weeks of going through my head for at least an hour a day, coating my hair with vinegar and oil (not at the same time), I couldn’t take it anymore and called in a delousing service.

It was painfully expensive, but our healthcare savings account money could be used to cover it. At that point, my head was irritated and itchy from the previous three weeks of checking it, and calling a service was for the best. They used natural remedies, specifically olive oil, and recommended a good nit comb.

They said that it isn’t unusual for dads to be lice-free and for moms to have the hardest time becoming lice-free. That’s because Moms usually have long hair and no one to check their heads while they are busily delousing the rest of the family and the home.


Tea tree oil in shampoo is an excellent way to repel lice and prevent an infestation. The Fairy Tales brand is quite popular and affordableHeadad lice are simply something that happens and is difficult to prevent.

There is a stereotype of lice being attracted to those with dirty hair. This is incorrect. Lice dislike dirty hair and hair with a lot of product because it makes it harder for them and their eggs to attach to the hair shaft.

Other helpful info about head lice:

  • Lice die after 24 hours if they are not on a person’s head. They can’t jump or fly. The eggs need to be close to the scalp for heat to incubate.
  • They aresspread mainly by head-to-head contact and rarely by sharing clothing and hairbrushes.
  • Lice don’t discriminate based on personal hygiene or home cleanliness.
  • Thank goodness pets cannot spread lice.

Ironically, when all was said and done, my hair was probably cleaner than it was the day I was born. After weeks of vinegar, olive oil, and nitpicking, the delousing lady said my scalp was pristine. There wasn’t even any dandruff on it.

Tips for Treating Lice

As with anything, dealing with a lice infestation will be less harrowing if you have done some preparation ahead of time.

  • Have the treatment and comb on hand. Spend some time now and research lice and treatments. Know beforehand if you will use the medicated shampoo, essential oils, or another option. Acquire it, along with a fine-tooth metal for lice removal. It will let you avoid taking someone with lice to the store for those items, and you can start treatment sooner.
  • Children take their cue from their parents. Our children stayed calm during the whole craziness of the discovery and first day because we did (at least on the surface). We stressed to them the importance of following our directions so it didn’t spread. They saw how much work it was and were expected to help out a little extra. Since we took the time to explain it to them, there wasn’t much complaining.
  • Have trash bags and extra bedding. We had a supply of trash bags on hand that we could put things in, and it came in handy – not just for the toys but also for bedding that we washed but didn’t want to use again until it was all over. We also had extra bedding on hand for the days when the wash wasn’t quite done by the children’s bedtime. 
  • Have a good heat source (washer/dryer/water). Heat kills lice. You need to have a way to have hot water and air to kill them. 
  • Be prepared to spend a lot of time. It takes hours to comb through hair, and every day there was a new list of chores to do – change bedding, vacuum carpet, furniture, and mattresses – on top of the normal daily chores. 

For more details on lice, visit the CDC. Photos are courtesy of the CDC.

Treating Lice from a Preparedness Standpoint

Addressing lice infestations under normal circumstances is difficult enough. Can you imagine what it would be like during a power outage or SHTF scenario? Fortunately, most preppers keep plenty of vinegar in their food storage as well as a good rotation of oils. Add the nitpicking comb and a supply of shower caps, and all you’ll need to add at that moment is persistence.

Knowing how to deal with parasites is good knowledge to have. You can read more on identifying and treating parasites in humans.

Lice – they’re something every parent hopes they never have to deal with. To have bugs crawling around and laying eggs in your hair or your child’s hair can send shivers up anyone’s spine and fill you with dread. But it can happen to anyone, and it might be easier to handle if you’re prepared.

Have you thought about lice so you’re prepared if it should happen? Have you experienced lice and have any tips to share?

Originally published December 30, 2014; updated by The Survival Mom editors with contributions by Sarah Anne Carter.

16 thoughts on “Don’t Panic! A Simple Guide to Preparing for and Treating Lice”

  1. ( sorry for the mistakes, I’m french…)
    1 only time, my oldest girl have eggs lice in her hair. You can soak hair with oil ( yes, kitchen oil, very cheap !), but she must have hait very soaked, then you wrap her hair with plastic wrap ( right ? you see, those use in kitchen ). Do this 2 hours minimum. you will must do a lots of shampoo after that, but the lack of oxygen ( oil inside the ” nostrils” of the lice and eggs) will kill them, and it will be more easy use the metal comb. You can also put in the freezer those little things whose can’t be whash. lavender essential oil in the shampoo can prevent further invasion.
    Can’t stop scratching my head, now…lol

  2. DD#1 is highly allergic to the chemical stuff and to keep her out of the ER I did lots of research. I love the Fairy Tales Products. The terminator comb is a life send. I can’t find lice in the hair just by looking but I can remove them with that comb. And it gets the eggs out too. We regularly use the Rosemary Repel Creme Conditioner and spray on conditioner during the school year. Dd#1 hasn’t had a case since.

  3. i treated my daughters hair with one treatment and never saw another! Coconut oil!! I slathered it on, put a shower cap on her and left it on 8 hours, then combed. Eggs, lice and all gone! I then continued to put tea tree oil in her shampoo and coconut oil in her conditioner. Never had them since!

  4. Since I started putting tea tree oil in my daughters shampoo & conditioner she hasn’t got them. Before I started doing that she would have several infestations during the school year. Highly recommend this for prevention.

  5. My 2 little ones and I had a run in with lice! We used the Robi Comb-has a charge in it so when you comb the hair and a louse or a nit gets between the tines, the charge zaps it and kills it. The comb goes off so you know you got one. It is harmless to humans. If you can’t afford one or find one, the regular nit combs work well, just takes more time to make sure you’ve got the little boogers. When I was in Cosmetology school, one of my shampoo/blow-dry clients had nits(the eggs) throughout her hair that I didn’t notice until time to blow-dry. My instructor stopped me immediately and told me had I started blow drying, the eggs would’ve started hatching! If that is true, then I would not do what an earlier commenter stated in saying to use heat to kill the lice. You might have more on your hands, or head, than you bargained for!

  6. Sarah Anne Carter

    Merry – I did some quick research and heat does kill them. Some people suggest using a blow dryer to kill them. Your hairdresser probably knew that they need heat from your scalp to hatch, but a higher level of heat does kill them – not cause them to hatch.

  7. lice has a more difficult time attaching to hair with product in it. Anytime I find out lice is going around I put gel in the kids hair, i French braid the girls with a bun at the bottom to keep it from being loose and style my boys Mohawks. We had severe cases is class where more than half the students had it, same with a dance class (sharing sparkly fedoras for a routine) and several other activities and neighbors and playmates. No one in my home has ever gotten it. And as I said all I do it gel the crap out of their hair and wash it super good nightly.

  8. Too bad I didn’t read this before Christmas, I could have asked for tea tree oil for a stocking stuffer. I could see myself freaking out about them, so it may be worth it to go for the preventative measures.

  9. We had them when my kids were small, a last present from the regular public school when we left to homeschool. The chemicals made rashes on the kids and did not kill the lice. A friend said to slather the hair in mayonaise, not lowfat! wrap with plastic wrap, cover with a beanie to keep it on and leave on overnight. I think it was two applications about a week apart. Worked great and soft hair to boot!

  10. Don’t forget to clean your car. A friend kept getting re-infested and those little buggers were living in the car. They took a two week self imposed quarantine and finally put an end to it.

  11. My child had lice once and she had to go to school like that. She said it was embarrassing. But at least I had found a remedy. Its basicly just adding downy (yes downy the laundry thing) it helped get rid if it so well buy the end of her school year she was done with lice. Just like that! Use this every day for one week and you will see big time difference. It also leave the hair smelling good as well.

  12. Dimethicone oil mixed half and half with olive oil is the the professional cleaning service we payed for used and what was recommended at the lice convention. The oil is so dense that the lice can’t breath and die in less than 30 minutes. Only repeat the treatment once 5 days later in case any eggs were missed. The service was gaurunteed lice free so my kids could go to school the next day. I had already spent an entire day shampooing and combing through the hair of everyone in my house with the shampoo. We learned that the lice have become immune and this is the most effective solution and something wet always keep in hand now. They also said sticking all the combs hair things in a zip bag and putting them in the freezer for a day would kill anything in them. The lice only survive off the head for 24 hours but they leave a pheromone that attracts more for up to a month so keep hair in braids or pony tails. Washing sheets and vacuuming beds, couches, cars, etc.

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