I'VE HAD ADULT LICE! Here's What To Do If It Happens to You

My friends think that I’m gross and shameless for broadcasting my lice across the Internet.
Publish date:
October 28, 2013
lice, misery, clean hair, it's going to be okay

After I wrote my first xoJane article about how easy-breezy-effing-beautiful my hair is, I was really fretting about how I would follow it up. I decided to leave it up to the universe to reveal to my next story to me while I slept til noon and skipped statistics class.

Appropriately, the universe put on its best trollface and said something to the effect of, “LOL OK IF YOU SAY SO.”

On a stuffy Thursday afternoon in September, I sat on a plastic stool listening to one of the kids in the after school program where I volunteer read a poem she wrote. When I reached behind my ear to scratch an itch, something caught under my finger nail, so I absent-mindedly pulled it out to inspect it.

It was a bug.


I calmly stood up, threw the stool through the second story window, and tossed myself into the courtyard below.

Or not. But I did book it out of the school faking an allergic reaction. (Sorry again, universe! Please don’t send any actual walnuts my way…)

I drove straight to my mom’s house on the other side of town, where she combed through my head (which had, I then realized, been itching for a few days). She dubbed it a bad case of dandruff, took me out for Mexican, and sent me on my way back to my north side cave. Because who the hell expects to find head lice on a 22 year old?

I had some serious doubts about my clean bill of health, but I was full of enchiladas so I crawled into my blanket cave to watch Alton Brown reruns on YouTube until I drifted off to sleep.

The mini alien invaders on my scalp must not have been fans of cooking shows filmed from the oven’s perspective, because they started biting harder. At around midnight, I picked two more tiny bastards out of my hair, and all hell broke loose.

My mom, the hero of this story, showed up on my doorstep with a pack of Nix. We shampooed my hair with the stuff in the kit, and she did the first round of nit-picking. In the middle of the night. My mom is a saint.

(At this point, you are probably raking your fingers through your hair at the mere mention of the word. I should probably note that cases of lice among U.S. adults are uncommon. Virtually the only at-risk groups are parents and childcare providers. I fall into the latter category. Sorry if this headline made you scratch your head. If you have lice, you’ll know.)

Once my mom left, things took a turn for the melodramatic. I live alone, so I didn’t have to break the news to any roommates, but I did call my boyfriend to wake him up and tell him that his matress and sheets were probably infested with blood-sucking parasites and that he should probably never sleep again. Or something like that. Dick move.

I vaguely remembered that some people smothered lice overnight, so I stripped off all my clothes (fabric was the enemy at this point) and stared vacantly into the mirror as I smeared crunchy peanut butter into my scalp. I tied a Kroger bag over it and vacuumed my whole house at 3 a.m.

I did not need to do ANY of that, and neither do you if you ever find yourself in a similar situation. Sitting here a month lice-free, I’ve gained a little perspective that seemed unfathomable when I was sleeping naked on my living room floor wrapped in a fitted sheet with a head full of bugs. Here are the few lice facts you need to know if you’re fighting with the little fuckers on your own head or your kid’s.

A case of head lice is uncomfortable and inconvenient, but if it weren’t totally beatable, we’d all still be walking around with the bugs that skipped onto our heads at camp in the summer of ’97. Lice are not dangerous; they do not carry diseases. They are considered a cosmetic annoyance, not a medical emergency. Take a deep breath, take a step back, maybe a take a tequila shot, and quote everyone’s favorite foot tattoo: “This too shall pass.”

Lice need blood from your scalp to survive. Lice aren’t like bedbugs -- they really don’t want to be anywhere but your head. Without a head to leech from, they die in 24-48 hours. This means that there’s no need to bag every item in your house and toss every comb. Just leave them alone for a few days. Wash sheets, towels, bathrobes, and the clothes you’ve worn in the last few days, and throw your pillows in the dryer on its hottest setting for around 10 minutes.

Frankly, these measures are more for your peace of mind than anything else. Lice are small, lazy and slow -- they are much more likely to latch onto another scalp during a hug than they are to lie in wait on a pillow case. I most likely contracted head lice after carrying one of the kids at work. It’s a common practice at my school to carry an injured child or one who’s younger than two, but I’ve since instituted a George Bluth Senior-style “NO TOUCHING” policy.

Daily nit picking is really the only guaranteed way to quickly get rid of a case of head lice. Thankfully, I live close enough to my mom, and we were able to hang out and cook dinner and watch "Battlestar Gallactica" and pick nits.

My mom picked every night until we had 2 consecutive nit-free nights (days six and seven), and then she checked me every other night for another week. My boss at the preschool also checked my hair once when my mom couldn’t; I recommend asking anyone with whom you’re comfortable enough to pick your nits if your mom isn’t nearby (people with kids are good bets).

If your kid is the one with lice, congratulations! You are the nit picker! Maybe your kid will write a revealing article about it for the school paper!

And what exactly are you supposed to be picking? A nit is a louse egg. It looks tiny white dots wrapped around the hair follicle. Unlike dandruff , you can’t brush them away; you will have to pinch to get them off of the hair shaft (I found that wetting my hair with a white vinegar/water solution loosened them a little).

My hair was too fine to use a comb, but those with thicker strands may be able to comb nits out. It takes about seven days for a nit to hatch into a nymph (an adolescent louse), which then matures into a fully grown louse. Most people discover that they have lice around 2 weeks after exposure.

Unfortunately for me and my peanut butter dunce cap, lice can hold their breath for eight hours or more. This means that overnight smothering treatments don’t work. Don’t bother. It’s wise, however, to take steps to make your head an unpleasant place to live. The only thing that will kill lice is lice shampoo (Nix worked very well for me), and the only thing that kills nits is nit picking, but there are a few things you can do to help prevent getting a déjà vu case.

According to Science, lice dislike extreme heat, grease or product buildup, and the smell of tea tree oil. (Perhaps I am a louse, because I also dislike those things.)

I used Organix Tea Tree Mint Shampoo every few days, then blew out my hair, lingering on the spots where lice like to camp out (behind my ears and the back of my neck). I pretty much held the dryer to one spot until it hurt and then moved on until I had done my whole head. I also used a flat iron over my whole head on the highest heat setting; the conventional wisdom is that you will kill the nits that were laid near the scalp and had grown out.

On the days I worked at the preschool, I brushed my hair into a tight ballerina bun and spritzed it with a tea tree oil and water solution. (I still do this on most work days).

This process was kind of painful, and it was not at ALL good for my scalp or my hair. But it made me feel like I was doing something.

Dealing with a case of adult head lice kind of turned me into a helpless 10-year-old. I cried and hung out with my mom a lot, and I secretly picked at my scalp in the bathroom. I even grew my nails out so I could pick better, just like in fifth grade. Don’t do that.

Many people who think they’re dealing with re-infestation actually have inflamed scalps from treatment shampoos and home remedies (or clandestine scalp picking). You only need to use the shampoo again if there are live bugs after seven days. Not if you’re still itching. SERIOUSLY.

My mom thought she saw something on the seventh day, so I used the shampoo again, and my scalp started coming off in chunks. That stuff is serious. A few weeks of shampooing sparingly with a really gentle shampoo (I used Shea Moisture Raw Shea Butter Moisture Retention Shampoo ) and sleeping with an olive oil mask calmed my scalp down, but it was pretty gross there for a while.

It’s been about a month since that first night of peanut-butter headed vacuuming, and my lice saga already seems more like a funny story to tell at a bar and less like a harrowing tale of battle. If you’re dealing with these lil’ critters right now, laugh at how goofy you look picking your kid like a gorilla and watch another episode of "Battlestar Gallactica." It’ll be over soon.

My friends think that I’m gross and shameless for broadcasting my lice across the internet -- what do you guys think? I totally am gross and shameless, for the record. Have you ever had lice? How did you get rid of it?