I’ve dealt with a panoply of infectious ailments since becoming a parent. Pneumonia; hand, foot and mouth disease; impetigo; conjunctivitis; ear infections; and an endless parade of garden-variety viruses have warranted regular trips to the pharmacy and the doctors’ surgery over the years. Particularly memorable was our family’s first round of gastro – an illness I’d evaded for 32 years but have had twice, once on my birthday, since having kids.
One invasion I’m fervently thankful we’ve escaped so far is head lice. Microscopic pathogens – even if they result in soul-crushing evacuations of the digestive system – I can handle. An infestation of visible creepy crawlies in my children’s hair – no thank you. It’s a shudder-inducing thought, and I doubt I’d be up to the task of dealing with the critters. And the thought that they could end up in my hair – excuse me while I breathe into this paper bag.
But – mercy be – there are steps you can take to protect your family members’ scalps from head lice. On new SBS series Medicine or Myth, mother and daughter duo Patti and Mia peddle their homemade head lice repellent to an expert panel looking for remedies to send to scientific trial. It’s a subject close to the heart of panel members Dr Charlie Teo and Dr Ginni Mansberg, both parents who have dealt with their share of nit infestations over the years.
First off – just what are head lice? According to the Health Direct website, they are “tiny wingless insects about the size of a sesame seed that live in the hair of humans and animals where they feed on blood by biting the skin.” Lice spread by close head-to-head contact and sharing combs and hairbrushes. “They swing from hair to hair like Tarzan,” explains Mansberg helpfully. Fortunately for parents, children affected by head lice can attend school as long as effective treatment begins before the next school day.
To keep dreaded nits at bay, Patti has created a spray made from tea tree, lavender, eucalyptus and rosemary oils that she applies to eight-year-old Mia’s incredible calf-length locks every day. It acts as both a repellent and a treatment, with the tea tree oil, the active ingredient, killing lice and their eggs.
The panel is convinced of the repellent’s efficacy thanks to the well-established medicinal properties of tea tree oil and chooses not to send Patti’s head lice spray to trial. They are nevertheless impressed by the product. “I wish I’d heard this presentation when my children were still at school,” Teo says. “It would have saved us thousands of dollars.”
Inspired by Patti’s miracle medicine, I turned to social media to marshal more tried and tested home remedies for treating head lice. I was overwhelmed with responses from brave parents who have battled nits and won. Many used variations of the same tea tree oil spray used by Patti in an effort to avoid using conventional chemical treatments. Others suggested more questionable methods of nit removal, such as washing hair in mouthwash or dousing hair daily with hairspray to form a protective shield – two strategies I’d rather avoid.
Here are two more head lice home remedies (not at all endorsed by SBS Life).
Coconut oil is one of the hardest working items in the pantry. According to the oil’s devotees, its potential uses are endless, from moisturising to repelling mozzies to making mayonnaise – and now you can add treating head lice to the list. One such remedy involves applying coconut oil to the hair before sliding off eggs. Hair is then rinsed with apple cider vinegar and wrapped with cling wrap for 30 minutes. Next, wash hair and comb through conditioner. Do it all again two days later, and comb through conditioner with a nit comb every second night for the rest of the week. According to website Healthline, there’s still not enough known about how coconut oil could treat lice, so if it doesn’t work after three treatments, it’s time to talk to your doctor.
Some claim Coke can be used to remove rust, so it comes as no surprise that it could potentially kill pests too. Devotees of this mention wash hair before dousing it from roots to tip with two litres of Coke (!). They then let hair dry without rinsing, presumably ignoring the inevitable stickiness. Once it's dry, it's time to wash and condition as normal.
And if all else fails, follow this mum’s advice: “shave heads, burn house down and start again!”
This article contains general information only and does not recommend or endorse any particular treatment. It is not intended to replace the advice provided by your own doctor or medical or health professional.
Nicola Heath is a freelance writer. Follow Nicola on Twitter @nicoheath
Are alternative remedies simply a myth or do they have a place alongside modern medicine?
Medicine or Myth? follows everyday Australians as they pitch their diverse and sometimes divisive health remedies to a panel of medical experts, led by Dr Charlie Teo, in the hope of being selected for a real-world trial.
#MedicineorMyth, an eight-week series, airs every Monday at 8.30 pm on SBS, or catch up anytime on SBS On Demand.