A few weeks ago I received an email from a reader describing a scene in a book she was reading. In the book, the author was describing a prolonged stay where she, her family, and some friends had to endure life in a bomb shelter. In such close quarters under less than optimal conditions, they all become infested with lice.
Can you imagine becoming infested by lice while sheltering in place following a disaster or disruptive event? If that happened, Target and Wal-mart would be inaccessible, as would Amazon.com. Having had lice myself when I was a young adult, just thinking about it gives me the heebie-jeebies.
We all know the proper sanitation and good hygiene are important factors for maintaining good health but when the stuff hits the fan, all bets are off. So what are lice?
What are Lice?
Lice are parasitic insects that can be found on human bodies, including the head/scalp and pubic areas. They survive by feeding on human blood and, depending on where they are on the body, are one of three types:
- Pediculus humanus capitis (head louse)
- Pediculus humanus corporis (body louse, clothes louse)
- Pthirus pubis (“crab” louse, pubic louse)
According to the CDC, only the body louse is known to spread disease. In addition, infestations are spread most commonly by close person-to-person contact. Dogs, cats, and other pets do not play a role in the transmission of human lice. Lice move by crawling; they cannot hop or fly.
Lice is the plural of louse
Okay, now that we have that out of the way, I would like to share some information that will help you control lice in a survival situation. First up is some information from Dr. Joe Alton, our Backdoor Survival medical expert.
Being Nitpicky About Lice
In good times or bad, your family’s hygiene is a big factor with regards to their health. Spending more time inside and at close quarters means more risk of infections. It also means more risk of infestations, and lice are one of the most common you’ll see.
A common health problem pertaining to poor hygiene is the presence of lice, also known as “Pediculosis”. Lice (singular: louse) are wingless parasitic insects that feed on blood and are found on many species.
On humans, there are three types:
The Head Louse – Pediculus humanus capitis
The Body Louse – Pediculus humanus corporis
The Pubic Louse – “Crab” Pthirus pubis
Body lice can act as a vector to transmit disease to human hosts. At present, there is no evidence that head or pubic lice do, but all lice cause irritation that can have major implications for the health of a survival group. Sometimes, irritation and itching caused by lice breaks the skin; this allows other infections to develop.
Lice are, generally speaking, species-specific. You cannot, as an example, get lice from your dog, like you could get fleas. You get them only from other humans. It’s interesting to note that human lice and chimpanzee lice diverged from each other, from an evolutionary standpoint, about 6 million years ago; this is almost exactly when their hosts went their separate ways.
Major risk factors for lice infestations include crowded, unsanitary conditions or situations where close personal contact is unavoidable. In normal times, these conditions most commonly occur in schools where ordinarily clean children come into contact with those who have lice.
The sharing of personal items can also lead to louse infestations. Clothing, combs, bedding, and towels that are used by multiple individuals are common ways that lice spread from person to person. These risks are even more pronounced in survival settings.
Head lice are greyish-white as adults and can reach the size of a small sesame seed. Infestation with head lice can cause itching and, sometimes, a rash. However, this type of lice is not a carrier of any other disease. Head lice are relatively common, so much so that 6-12 million cases a year are reported in the United States (mostly among young children).
With their less developed immune systems, kids often don’t even realize they are infested with lice. Adults, however, are usually kept scratching and irritated unless treated. An interesting fact is that African-Americans are somewhat resistant to head lice, possibly due to the shape and width of the hair shaft.
The diagnosis is made by identifying the presence of the louse or its “nits” (eggs). Nits look like small bits of dandruff that are stuck to hairs. They are more easily seen when examined using a “black light”. This causes them to fluoresce as light blue “dots” attached to the hair shafts near the scalp.
As black lights will be rare commodities in a collapse, a fine-tooth comb run through the hair will also reveal the adult lice and nits. These special combs are used to remove as many lice as possible before treatment and to check for them afterwards. The diligence required to do this effectively led to the coining of the term “nitpicking”..
It pays to Nitpick!
You will find the nits firmly attached to the hair shaft about ¼ inch from the scalp. Nits will generally appear as yellowish white and oval-shaped. The application of olive oil to the comb may make them easier to remove. Many prefer the metal nit combs sold at pet stores for animals to plastic ones sold at pharmacies for humans.
In normal times, wash and dry all clothes in hot temperatures or, alternatively, place in the freezer to kill the lice. If you are off grid, place clothing and personal items in a plastic bag for two weeks. Adult head lice usually only live a few days off the host.
Body lice are latecomers compared to head lice, probably first appearing when humans began to wear clothes about 170,000 years ago. As the concept of doing laundry occurred somewhat later than that, you can imagine that constant contact with dirty clothes caused frequent infestations.
Body lice, unlike head lice, have been linked to infectious diseases such as typhus, trench fever and epidemic relapsing fever. Continuous exposure to body lice may lead to areas on the skin that are hardened and deeply pigmented, a condition previously known as “vagabond’s disease”.
Infestations may be an issue common only with the homeless or in underdeveloped countries today; it will, however, likely be an epidemic in settings where regular bathing and washing of clothes isn’t possible.
Body lice are slightly larger than head lice; they also differ in that they live on dirty clothes (especially the seams), not on the body. They go to the human body only to feed. Also, they are sturdier than their cousins and can live without human contact for 30 days or so. Examination of clothes and bedding seams usually pinpoints the problem.
Destruction of the infested clothing, if possible, is the appropriate strategy here. Sometimes, using medication is unnecessary as the lice have left with the clothes (don’t bet on it, however).
Pubic infestations may be either caused by lice or mites. Pubic lice, also known as “crabs”, usually start in the pubic region but may eventually extend anywhere there is hair. They are most commonly passed by sexual contact. Severe itching is the main symptom and can involve the axillary (armpit) hair or even the eyelashes.
Although they are sometimes seen in a patient that has other sexually transmitted diseases, pubic lice do not actually transmit other illnesses. It should be noted that pubic lice infestations are one of the few sexually transmitted diseases that is not prevented by the use of a condom.
Scabies is often confused with “crabs”, but is caused by another creature entirely: tiny eight-legged mites of the species Sarcoptes scabiei. Like pubic lice, scabies can be passed through sexual contact or other direct skin-to-skin contact with another human but not from animals.
Unlike lice, however, the mites do not live and reproduce on hair shafts but burrow through the skin forming small raised red bumps that may become “crusty”. These areas may hold hundreds of mite eggs. Itching is usually severe and most intense at night. It should be noted that Scabies can affect skin folds, even those with little hair such as the folds of the wrists, elbows, or between fingers and toes.
Treatment of Lice
Infestations with lice and mites can be treated with medications called “Pediculocides”. They include:
- Pyrethrins (brand name Rid shampoo, a natural product also found in chrysanthemum flowers)
- Permethrin 1% (brand name Nix lotion, a synthetic pyrethrin)
- Lindane Shampoo (prescription brand Kwell)
- Spinosad (brand name Natroba, a natural insecticide derived from soil bacteria – only for head lice in children 4 year or older
- Ivermectin 0.5% (brand name Sklice, also from soil bacteria and only for head lice in children 6 months or older)
Nix lotion will kill both the lice and their eggs. Rid shampoo will kill the lice, but not their eggs; be certain to repeat the shampoo treatment 7 days later. This may not be a bad strategy with the other treatments as well. Thoroughly examine the area in question for persistent nits and adults.
You might ask your physician for a prescription for Kwell shampoo to stockpile. It is a much stronger treatment for resistant cases. It may cause neurological side-effects in children, so avoid this medicine in pediatric cases.
Here are general instructions for the above products:
• Start with dry hair. If you use hair conditioners, stop for a few days before using the medicine. This will allow the medicine to have the most effect on the hair shaft.
• Apply the medicine to the hair and scalp.
• Rinse off after 10 minutes or so.
• Check for lice and nits using a comb in 8 to 12 hours.
• Repeat the process in 7 days
Wash all linens that you don’t throw away in hot water (at least 120 degrees). Unwashable items, such as stuffed animals, that you cannot bring yourself to throw out should be placed in plastic bags for 2 weeks (for head lice) to 5 weeks (for body lice). The bags are then opened to air outside and shaken out.
Combs and brushes should be placed in alcohol or very hot water.
Your patients should change clothes daily, although this may be problematic in austere settings. It would be wise for any item that might have been exposed to be treated, even if belonging to other family members. Have enough pediculocide product to treat the entire group.
Over time, commercial medications may run out, but natural remedies for lice have existed for thousands of years. Even commercial medications like Rid Shampoo use pyrethrin, a substance extracted from the chrysanthemum flower. Another favorite anti-lice product is Clearlice, a natural product containing peppermint, among other things.
A combination used for lice utilizes tea tree and Neem oils. One topical therapy mixes a blend of vinegar, tea tree oil (melaleuca), and Neem oil, which is applied daily for 21 days. A mixture of Witch Hazel and tea tree oil applied daily after showering for 21 days has also been reported as effective against hair lice.
A triple blend of tea tree, lavender, and Neem oil applied to the public region for 21 days may be effective in eliminating Scabies. All of these methods require diligent removal of nits and adult lice by combing beforehand.
Although I have seen recommendations to “suffocate” head lice with mayonnaise, lard, butter, or coconut/olive oil, there isn’t enough evidence to be certain that this method will work. Besides, you might just need those products for survival purposes. If you do use it, you would generously apply to the head, place a shower cap overnight, and rinse out in the morning.
In normal times and not-so-normal times, keeping an eye out for lice will give you a head start on staying healthy. Good hygiene is the key to success, even if everything else fails.
How to Treat Head Lice with a “Lice Comb”
Although it would be nice to have some assistance in the removal of head lice, in a true, long term survival situation, you are not going to have prescription medications or OTC shampoos. You may have a stockpile of essential oils (and I hope you do), but even they, over time, will become precious.
As an alternative, consider a “lice comb“. For about $10, you can add one to your first aid kit and be done with it. If you never need it, terrific, but if you do, you will be ready.
Recently, my colleague Daisy Luther wrote about using a lice comb to remove head lice. She shared a method that even works on super lice. Here is a summary of her method:
Find a location with good light, where the person with the infestation can be completely comfortable. When I’ve treated children, I generally put them on a pillow on the floor in front of the couch and put a movie on to entertain them.
Apply conditioner liberally to dry hair. Use a brush to pull the conditioner completely through the hair from root to tip. Add more if necessary. It’s very important that the hair be well-lubricated with conditioner so that you can use the fine-toothed comb without pulling too painfully.
If, for some reason, you don’t have access to conditioner you can use a spray bottle with water. However, it won’t detangle as well. After brushing the conditioner through the person’s hair, put the brush aside to be cleaned. DO NOT use it again, or you could be putting nits right back into the hair you just combed out.
Separate the hair into sections, and use clips to hold them into place. How many sections depends on how thick the person’s hair is. For someone with very thick hair, you’ll probably need to make 6 or more sections. You’re going to work on one section at a time, then pin the completed section back into place to keep it away from the other sections.
Using your lice comb (or “cootie comb” as we called it in my house) start all the way up at the scalp. Draw the comb all the way through the entire length of the strand of hair.
After each pass with the comb, wipe off the conditioner and whatever else comes off the hair with it. I normally use kleenexes for this so that I can flush the bugs and nits when I’m done. Go through each strand 2-3 times, or until the comb comes back without bugs or nits.
Pay extra attention to places like the crown of the head, behind the ears, and along the hairline at the nape of the neck. These tend to be the most lice-populated areas.
Once you’ve gone through the entire head of hair, the person can wash out the conditioner.
Do away with the bugs and eggs by flushing them down the toilet or throwing them into the woodstove or fireplace.
After you’re finished combing, wash everything that has touched the person’s head in hot soapy water with a touch of bleach.
Repeat this process no less than 2 times per day for a week after the lice were found. After that, check the person’s head every day for another week. If you missed any eggs, it will take 7-12 days for them to hatch and your infestation could start all over again if you aren’t scrupulous.
Do a thorough cleaning after you’ve gotten rid of head lice. It’s imperative that you also do some extra housekeeping. It does no good to painstakingly comb out hair but then to go and lay in a bed where bugs could be lying in wait.
A Synergistic Essential Oil Blend for Head Lice
If you find yourself with a lice infestation during a short term disruptive event, I would encourage you to use your essential oils. The following blend is adopted from one of my favorite essential oil gurus, Valerie Worwood and her book The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy.
Mix 10 drops each of Rosemary, Geranium and Lavender essential oils into 1 ounce of carrier oil (such as coconut oil or Simple Salve). For head lice, rub into the scalp nightly. In the morning, remove the dead lice using a lice comb. This same method can be used with public lice.
Note that Melaleuca (tea tree) oil is also effective and may be used alone or in combination with the other oils.
How to Treat Body Lice
According to Harvard Medical School, body lice are unable to burrow into the skin. Although a few body lice may be seen clinging to body hairs, most are on the clothing of an infested person. Body lice and their eggs are most abundant along the seams of clothes worn close to the body.
The good news is that someone infested with body lice typically will have 10 or fewer active lice on their skin at any one time. But the clothing may contain many dozens or hundreds.
For body lice or pubic lice, bathe or shower in the hottest water possible. Then destroy infected towels, bedding, and clothing or carefully wash the items in hot water (at least 120 degrees F).
The Final Word
Lice obtain their food by biting and sucking out blood. Alas, it may take awhile to recognize the symptoms of a lice infestation, most notably intense itching or, in the case of body lice, small welt-like marks and, possibly, redness and swelling, particularly around the neck and on the torso.
As with other medical woes, something that is easily dealt with under normal conditions can become a major health annoyance under austere, survival conditions. While not necessarily a health risk per se, having lice will definitely add to stress levels that have already skyrocketed to the max.
My recommendation? Invest in an inexpensive lice comb and a few basic essential oils for your survival first aid kit. Be ready for lice, if and when the time comes.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
Gaye Levy, also known as the Survival Woman, grew up and attended school in the Greater Seattle area. After spending many years as an executive in the software industry, she started a specialized accounting practice offering contract CFO work to emerging high tech and service industries. She has now abandoned city life and has moved to a serenely beautiful rural area on an island in NW Washington State. She lives and teaches the principles of a sustainable and self-reliant lifestyle through her website at BackdoorSurvival.com. At Backdoor Survival, Gaye speaks her mind and delivers her message of prepping with optimism and grace, regardless of the uncertain times and mayhem swirling around us.