Article by Dr. Sarah Lantz
It’s a perfectly normal Sunday morning when I find myself sneaking around my home at 2am with a headlamp on, giving my sleeping children a nit check. Doesn’t every parent do that?
Come on, let’s lose the hysteria over nits (head lice) this year! Because everybody gets nits at some point; it’s a perfectly normal part of Australian childhood, whether we like it or not. No amount of public shaming, judgement or separation will change that fact.
You see, little critters predate human evolution, somewhere as early as 8,000 B.C. Archaeologists found nits on the hair of a 10,000-year-old mummy in South America, and it is known that Egyptian priests shaved their heads and their eyebrows every other day to eliminate head lice as early as 430 B.C. Whilst the notorious and extensive use of the chemical concoction DDT limited head lice infestations from the 1950s to 1970s, nits have since built up a resistance to most pesticides in current chemical nit treatments on the market. Many advocates argue that exposure to chemical treatments in small doses is perfectly safe, the body burden (or chemical load) that children now carry is a significant one1. Research reveals that some children carry a load of over 200 industrial chemical contaminants in their blood, pointing to a host of health implications. Chemical policy assumes that our bodies can take a certain ‘amount’ of contaminants before our systems begin to collapse, or the proverbial saying – ‘broke the camel’s back’.
Despite greater awareness of head lice today, the reality is, little has changed in the overall burden of this infestation in the community in the past 50 years.
Many misconceptions about how nits spread and how they’re treated only help feed the hysteria around nits. So, let me tell you a little about these critters to clear things up:
Fact: Nits only live on humans.
Fact: Nits are itchy and creepy but they won’t actually hurt your child or inflict too much damage and do not transmit other diseases.
Fact: Nits are not an indication of poor home hygiene. Full stop. Nits are not fussy and do not discriminate between heads. They affect people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, so despite the old wives’ tale, it doesn’t matter how clean or dirty your hair is, ‘if you rub heads with a lousy friend, you’ll probably become lousy yourself’.
Fact: Nits do not spread easily. They cannot jump or fly. They can only crawl. As a result, transmissions usually occur via direct head-to-head contact.
Fact: You don’t need to sterilize your entire house due to a nit infestation. Although there have been suggestions that nits can infest household items such as bedding, hats and sofas, nits do not survive away from their human host, therefore, any actions on the home such as spraying pesticides or freezing a beloved teddy bear, is unnecessary. Nits can only live off the human head for around 24-36 hours, where they quickly dehydrate and die.
So, once infested, how do you get rid of the little buggers?
Firstly, a few things not to do. Desperate parents will try almost anything to get remove persistent nits including using the home vacuum, dousing their child’s head in vodka, cola, vinegar, bleach, Listerine, mayonnaise, Mortein, kerosene and petrol. Parents admit to shaving their child’s hair in an attempt to eliminate nits, dyeing their child’s hair, and even using flea treatments for pets. Most of these strategies are ineffective and to be honest some are just plain dangerous. Just saying. No judgement.
Most research and remedy options these days point to treating all developmental stages of the life cycle (egg, nymph and adult) over a period of time.
Whilst there are many products on the market, both natural and chemical, claiming to either kill nits or prevent them in one fell swoop, evidence to support these claims is lacking. Research consistently highlights that elimination will not happen in one sitting as there are no completely effective nit treatments, and the life cycle of the nit makes this near impossible.
Given this, success comes with persistence and resolve. Most families have their own home nit remedies that utilise a range of oils (anise, coconut, olive, tea tree, eucalyptus), essential oils such as neem, clove, lavender and lemon, and herbal concoctions. These, combined with good old-fashioned elbow grease and wet combing (conditioner and comb) method, are not only nontoxic and without side effects, but work in the long run. There are also a range of natural and certified organic nit treatments on the market.
For many families, nit treatments and forensic screenings become a weekly extracurricular activity that you simply have to schedule and show up for. Treat the hair from the root to the tip. Then Treat. Comb. Treat. Comb. Treat. Comb. Remember, the family that removes lice together, stays together.
1Lantz, S. & McIntosh (2016) One Bite at a Time: Reduce Toxic Exposure & Eat the World You Want, Roots in Nature Pty Ltd. Brisbane, Australia.
Dr Sarah Lantz (PhD)
Buchi Brew Co. & Sacred Women’s Way