Posted by: Ticktock | April 10, 2009

Busting Lice Myths

I had lice when I was a kid.  I was in 5th grade.  I remember my mom scrubbing this horrible shampoo into my head and combing my hair for eggs and bugs.  It was just as unpleasant for her finding a creepy crawly and killing it as it was for me to have my scalp used as a war zone.

I remember the sinking feeling that I felt when I returned to school, and all the kids had to be checked for lice.  I whispered to the substitute teacher that I was the one who had it already, and she let me stay behind.  To my horror, one of the other students noticed that I didn’t get checked.  For some reason, I managed to escape being teased.  I think I was terrified of being known as that “bug haired kid” for the duration of my adolescence.  That’s a pretty reasonable fear, isn’t it?

Anyway, a friend of a friend (for real) is having problems with lice, and I heard that they were using every treatment imaginable to eliminate the buggies.  Bingo.  Time for some debunking!

I stole this advice from Harvard lice expert Dr. Richard J. Pollack.  If you want answers that are more in-depth (such as how to specifically manage lice), you should probably go straight to the source.  There’s also an NPR segment about lice that you can check out.

Lice can jump from head to head?

Lice can’t jump like fleas or ticks.  Instead, they’ve evolved hair-grasping appendages, which they use to navigate the human scalp while they drink blood.

Lice spread mostly by hats and brushes?

While hats and brushes do pose a small risk of lice, they are not the typical way that lice spread from head to head.  The reason for this is that lice can’t live much longer than a day without human blood.  The most common way for lice to spread is hair to hair contact, which is why it’s much more typical for kids to get lice than adults.

Only filthy poor kids get lice?

Lice do not discriminate between rich children and poor children.  It’s an equal opportunity parasite.

Kids with lice have to wash their hair with toxic bug poison?

The simplest way to eliminate lice in people with short hair is to remove the nits and the lice with a special comb.  An over-the-counter shampoo with a chrysanthemum extract is an effective option, but lice are starting to evolve a resistance to them.  You may have to find a prescription treatment that is more effective.

An alternative to poisonous shampoo are essential oils or suffocating agents like mayonnaise?

There is no evidence to back up the use of essential oils, vaseline, mayo, or suffocating agents to kill lice

Scalps with lice are crawling with bugs?

Ordinarily, a scalp infested with lice only has twelve bugs at any given moment.  There are lots of dead and viable eggs, though.

Should I scrub, vacuum, and disinfect my entire house?

No.  Just wash your sheets, towels, pajamas, plush animals, and car seat covers.  Use hot water and dry them in the dryer.  Also, wash combs, brushes, barrettes, and hats in hot water every day until the lice are gone.

Does shaving your head help any?

Yes, but it’s considered the nuclear option.  There are much easier ways to eliminate lice.



  1. I actually got lice recently from my friend’s kids and then of course gave it to my husband. That was the WORST couple of days – washing everything, combing through our hair (my hair is chin-length and kind of thin, my husband has shoulder-length hair and it’s thick – it took forever to comb!), and just feeling dirty in general. It’s so gross but hey, it happens!

  2. Weirdly enough, here in the UK we’re not even told to wash our stuff (sheets etc). Considering lice live a very short time without blood (less than 24 hours) and are unlikely to unstick themselves from your head to go investigate your pillow, hat or whatever, it seems very unlikely that you’re going to get reinfested by anything other than another person with lice.

    Also – “only filthy poor kids get lice” is not only untrue, the opposite is generally accepted to be true (here in the UK at least); lice prefer long, clean hair because it is easier to stick eggs to than dirty/greasy hair.

  3. My son brought home head lice two years ago..we needed to use a prescription shampoo to get rid of it. The one question that I had-no one was able to answer. Where do lice come from? Where do they start out? I’ve heard they live in trees..they grow from the body(spontaneous generating)!!! I understand how it spreads-but where besides getting it from another person do they originate from??..What do they live on when not on people…enquiring minds want to know!

    • Lice come from humans and no other source. They’ve evolved to live solely on human blood. They don’t even drink animal blood; that’s a different kind of lice. They can’t survive anywhere but on a human scalp.

      I think the myth about them jumping from trees comes from confusion between lice and ticks. From what I’ve been told, ticks jump from trees.

      I was thinking the same thing, though. How can lice even perpetuate if they are consistently isolated and destroyed? But really, lice are pretty rare these days for that very reason. I bet the only way they perpetuate is on people who are too lazy or misinformed to treat them.

  4. yes, but where did the first lice come from…the very first did it come into existence? I can understand ticks…they live in the woods..some sort of arachnid I think(I could very well be wrong)..I just want to know how lice came into creation? Did they just burst forth on someones head? were they created by some strange human mutation? Aliens? mad scientists? hair gone wrong? I know I sound a bit nutty-but hey, we all have our idiosyncrasies…sadly, one of mine is finding the origin of head lice.

  5. One louse, two lice, hence lousy.

    The eggs of lice are nits. Hence, “getting down to the nitty gritty” — paying attention to tiny details, such as needed to de-nit hairs.

    The boys each had a lice infestation but it was during the buzz-cut-is-popular, so that was easy.

    Kathleen, you need an evolutionary biologist to answer your question. I believe that most mammals harbor commensals (animals that co-evolve) such as lice.

  6. Thanks Liz. I will check out the university..perhaps I will be able to answer which came first..The lice or the egg…

  7. Oh man… I’ve scratched my head at least 20 times reading this.

  8. I asked my barber (licensed, not just a “hair stylist”) about lice. I asked why we don’t simply give the kid a very close buzz cut. He told me that under MA law, barbers are NOT PERMITTED to cut the hair of anyone suspected of having head lice.

    And if you haven’t seen it, the South Park episode (“Lice Capades”) about head lice is not to be missed.


    • I asked my barber the same thing, and she said if she saw any customer with lice she would tell them to leave and she would throw away her scissors and comb. She also said that there were lice eggs all over the dummy heads, but of course, the eggs were all dead.

  9. “Does shaving your head help any?
    Yes, but it’s considered the nuclear option.”

    I love it !
    Thanks for the laugh. We had a winter of head lice in my second grade class, and as I walked by the culprit all day and looked down at her head the thought of shaving it for her crossed my mind. Dealing with freaked out parents is the worst part of headlice!

  10. I needed answers-so I went to Mike Palopoli-a biology prof(teaches evolution among other topics) at Bowdoin college in Maine. He was kind enough to answer my query-the following is his response-

    “Here is a vague answer: At some level parasitism must always be a derived condition (although it can be lost secondarily), since this relationship requires two distinct species to have evolved before one of them can begin to parasitize the other. So, if you go back far enough in time, we would expect to find “louse-like” insects that DO NOT depend on a host to parasitize (e.g., maybe they were herbivores). At some point, members of this population gained a fitness advantage by supplementing their food intake with blood/tissue from host animals. This trait apparently spread until the entire population had the option of parasitizing a host animal. Since all modern day lice species are obligate parasites (as far as I know), the common ancestor of all lice was almost certainly an obligate parasite as well. Apparently the strategy of parasitizing a vertebrate host was so favorable that it drove out alternative foraging phenotypes in the population, leading to ever-greater specialization for a parasitic life cycle. Good luck with your quest. Best regards, Mike.”

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