Eliminating Head Lice When Prescription Treatments Fail

Updated on September 21, 2017
bethperry profile image

Beth is a mother of four children and grandmother of three, and cares deeply about children's rights.

Lice is the plural form for louse.
Lice is the plural form for louse.

Until our youngest children were in junior high school, I thankfully counted myself among folks who have heard about the frustration of head lice but have had no personal experience with the situation.

A few years previously, and as a preventative measure, my husband and I did have experience in obtaining and applying one of the prescription meds used to treat head lice. An infestation hit the school system, and administrators were asking every parent to get one of these medications to use on school-enrolled children. But, it wasn't until our youngest daughter entered the eighth grade that we actually encountered head lice.

It happened, as it so often does, with yet another outbreak at the schools. As soon as we knew about it, we obtained the required prescription from our family doctor. This time, however, and within days after using the treatment, our daughter started complaining of an itchy scalp. Upon examination, we found the nasty little culprits. Our family physician prescribed a secondary medication. We followed all of the instructions for this one, along with the tedious combing out of her hair with a fine-toothed comb and the other tiring tasks that go along with banishing head lice from house and home. We washed and dried in high heat every article of clothing, bedding, and other washables our girl had come in contact with. We replaced her pillow. We encased the mattress in plastic. We disposed and replaced her hair clips, bows, and such. We got her a new hair brush. We chemically bug-bombed the entire house. We sprayed insecticide inside the family vehicle.

Done and done, we thought.

A couple of days passed and then head lice showed up—now on our youngest son and both my husband and myself. Back to the doctor we went, we got more prescriptions and performed the same time-consuming chores as before. This time, however, the medication showed to have no effects on the head lice. And it wasn't long before the horrid beasts made their way back to our little girl.

My eldest daughter, who lives in her own home, had several keen suggestions. Among these was to use rubbing alcohol and tea tree oil against the enemy horde. Being the sweetheart that our eldest is, she came over and doused scalps and hair with rubbing alcohol and combed each and every head with patient diligence until all the lice eggs (nits) were removed. The exception to this was my husband, who just decided to shave his entire scalp. I got tea tree oil and washed all the laundry in the stuff. It seemed that these treatments worked! For some weeks, we saw no trace of the head lice at all.

A few weeks later, there was another outbreak at school. The administrators barred every affected child from classes until they came with a doctor's slip AND the box label from the prescribed treatment. My daughter was once more victimized. So we went back to the physician and got yet again more prescriptions. We used them. We used the rubbing alcohol and the tea tree oil. The mature lice were dead, but now the batch of nits attached to our hair could simply not be removed with a fine-tooth comb. Knowing she had no live infestation we sent our daughter back to school. Her teacher called to demand we pick her up. So we did. Our daughter, who had already been through so much, was quite upset by this time. It only worsened matters that now the very school that had sent so many children home now sent us a threatening letter to complain our daughter had missed so many days!

This time when we arrived at the doctor's office, our regular doctor wasn't in, but another physician was filling in. After examining my daughter's scalp and mine, this doctor declared all the adult lice were dead; only the dead nits remained cemented to the hair. To remove these dead nits she recommended using mayonnaise or vegetable oil as these things were traditionally used to smother the lice. This doctor was born in Yugoslavia (her own father was a physician), and she recounted to me a lice infestation incident from her own childhood—one of cruelty from schoolmates and teachers who had called her foreign-born family "dirty". The doctor grew visibly upset as she told me this story—angry enough that she wrote a rather snitty letter to my daughter's teacher explaining there was a huge difference between adult lice and dead nits, and that a person should not resort to shaming children or their parents just because that person is too ignorant to know that difference.

An adult louse residing close to a human scalp.
An adult louse residing close to a human scalp.

The doctor's note brought a half-hearted apology from my daughter's teacher. It was nearly the winter break, so over the holidays my daughter and I set about to trying the mayonnaise and cooking oil to get rid of the nits. We first tried the cooking oil, saturating our hair entirely which we then wrapped in towels on top of our heads. For more than two hours we left the oil. Then we washed and dried our hair, and using a metal comb, attempted to "un-glue" the nits. No luck. The following day we performed the same treatment using mayonnaise instead. When this was all done and finished we discovered our hair now had a glossy sheen. But the dead nits remained.

We were desperate now and my little girl did not want to try the rubbing alcohol method a second time. Fortunately, my eldest daughter had spoken with friends who had gone through very similar battles against head lice and their eggs. These friends suggested the application of coconut oil to remove the cemented dead nits. At the same time I found an article online which extolled the virtues of vinegar for nits.

I decided to try both.

Doing It My Own Way

I sought out shampoos and conditioners containing a high percentage of coconut oil, and settled on Tropical Coconut from the Suave brand of hair products. Along with this I obtained a large jug of white vinegar and a brand new fine-toothed steel comb as I figured flexible combs might prove ineffective. My younger daughter and I set to work.

white vinegar
white vinegar

Suspecting the vinegar to be the more aggressive of the combatants, I filled tall jars with the stuff so the long comb could be dipped in. Next I combed the vinegar through my daughter's hair. Almost immediately I began to notice the nits softening, and soon taking a gelatinous appearance. By the time her hair was saturated I was able to comb out a great many of the gooey nit remains. I allowed the vinegar to remain in her hair for 15 minutes. I next sent her to shampoo and condition with the Suave products. While she did this I washed the spent nits down the kitchen sink, then cleaned the cup and comb. When daughter was finished I once again combed her hair with vinegar. What remained of the jellied nits came away. To be on the safe side, she decided to shampoo and condition a second time. After this, her hair was completely free of nits!

Suave brand Tropical Coconut shampoo and conditioner
Suave brand Tropical Coconut shampoo and conditioner

I followed the same process on my own hair and was rewarded with just as happy a result.

My daughter and I were naturally relieved! Some time later, our son came home with the familiar warning notice that there was another outbreak in the schools. We quickly performed a search of his scalp. Yep, there were lice there. Although I did not know how the vinegar and coconut oil worked against live lice, I gave it a try anyway.

Success! The vinegar acted on the live mature lice just as it had on the nits: turning them into little masses of ooze. After combing these out from son's hair, he shampooed and conditioned with the Suave Tropical Coconut. The result was the satisfying absence of any lice or nits.

There was still his clothing, bedding, and new backpack to contend with. The clothing and bedding I first washed in vinegar and then used the coconut conditioner as I would liquid softener. As the backpack was non-washable I filled a spray bottle with the vinegar and simply doused the outside and inside of the backpack with it. The backpack was then set out to dry in the sun.

Our son was now louse-free and the timely actions prevented anyone else from being infested.

Now our only dilemma was in procuring some evidence of prescribed treatment that would content school officials. As there was no need to return to the doctor's office, we got a refill on an older prescription and sent our son to school with the label of this one. The school officials never questioned that our son was remedied not by harsh chemical insecticides but by a much gentler method. But they never found lice on him again, either.

It has been some years since our experiences with head lice. Although the school has since had many more outbreaks, by using vinegar and coconut-oil products our family has been spared the frustrating, costly and time-consuming battles encountered when they were younger. It has became routine to wash our hair every week or so with vinegar. We likewise use the Tropical Coconut products with regularity.

The experience left me with the firm belief that through evolutionary mutation, head lice can and often do build up immunity to man-made insecticides. On the other hand, I feel natural substances are more naturally effective weapons against the pesky vermin. The quick dismissal of natural remedies by the modern medical world and public school systems is profitable for the pharmaceutical industry. But as too many of us already know, this smug attitude makes headaches for the victim and their family.

Step-by-Step Guide

If you wish or need to try the lice-ridding method that worked for us, here is a step-by-step guide:

What you will need

a large bottle or jug of white vinegar

coconut-based shampoo and conditioner (I recommend Suave's Tropical Coconut although a variety of brands have their own offerings)

a long-handled fine-toothed non-flexible comb

a tall empty jar or glass


Fill empty bottle or jar with the vinegar. Using the non-flexible comb, apply the vinegar to head and hair, starting with the scalp. When the hair is thoroughly saturated with vinegar, wrap in towel and allow the vinegar to remain for 15-20 minutes. Using the steel comb, remove as many lice and nits as possible. Dip the comb frequently into the vinegar to remove these dead ones. Don't be surprised by the jelly blobs they are likely turned into!

Now shower the hair with warm water. Apply the coconut shampoo, create lather and allow to this remain for 10-20 minutes. Rinse. Re-apply shampoo and rinse. Apply the coconut conditioner generously and allow it to remain in hair for 15 minutes. Rinse thoroughly, pulling your fingers loosely through hair while doing so.

Using the cleaned comb and fresh vinegar, comb out remaining lice or nits from hair. Once all l combed out, wash and condition hair once more. The coconut oils will provide moisture to the hair. Dry and style hair as usual.

Remember to do this:

With hair pulled away from shoulders, wash in vinegar all bedding and clothing the sufferer has come into contact (and any other washables suspected to be infested). During washer's rinse cycle, add a 1/4-1/2 cup of coconut conditioner. Following the rinse cycle place items into dryer and dry well.

For non-washable items, spray with vinegar and allow o dry. Exceptions to this step include surfaces such as wood, vinyl and any material that can be damaged by vinegar. For these areas, I suggest manufacture-recommended cleaners or oils.

Post and/or precautionary measures

Rinse hair at least once a week with vinegar.

Use coconut shampoo and conditioner frequently.

Clean your brush and/or combs with vinegar before every shampoo.

Never share hats, caps, head bands, hoodies, head scarves, hair accessories, combs or brushes.


Tea tree oil, although not suggested as a treatment to get rid of lice, may serve as a pre-infestation repellent.

I have heard many women comment that hair dye kills lice. If this is a route you want to try, please use extreme care when using any dyes on children! The harsh chemicals of hair dyes can irritate skin and even cause blindness.

Rubbing alcohol or even grain alcohol may kill mature lice. The use of these on cemented nits, however, is negligible. The use of rubbing alcohol should be applied with extreme care! Never use near flames and never, ever use it near the eyes! If rubbing alcohol comes in contact with eyes, flush immediately with water and contact your nurse or physician immediately.

It is my experience that cooking oils and mayonnaise may make for shiny hair and perhaps they do smother mature lice, but neither proved successful in loosening cemented nits. Not to mention, these treatments are excessively messy!

Applying cooking oils or mayonnaise can make for beautifully glossy hair, and may even smother adult lice. But neither is recommended by this writer for removing nits.
Applying cooking oils or mayonnaise can make for beautifully glossy hair, and may even smother adult lice. But neither is recommended by this writer for removing nits.

Head Lice Facts To Remember

Having an itchy scalp does not necessarily mean you have head lice. Dandruff and dry scalp also makes for itching. If you or your child has an itchy scalp, you can determine if the cause is lice by simple examination of the hair roots. Head lice prefer being close to the scalp, where they can feed on the blood of their host. To check for head lice, take a lock of hair and pull up gingerly, examining for signs of insects. It may take several looks to observe the vermin at work. Also examine your brush or comb, as head lice often come out (and likewise look for places to spread) while their host grooms.

While mature lice will try to hide from exposure, observing nits is much easier. The adult lice use hair strands for distributing their eggs (nits), and it is in these that the larvae develop. After hatching, the nits remain on the hair shaft until time or effort removes the dried remains. Larvae that have died in their nits will likewise remain attached unless removed. Nits on hair are generally white or pale yellow in color, and often appear like hardened globules of hair spray clinging to individual hair strands.

Nits are louse eggs attached to hair.
Nits are louse eggs attached to hair.

Anyone can get head lice, and infestations are not reflective of a person's state of cleanliness.

Prescription and OTC medications may successfully treat some cases of head lice (especially in regions without a history of re-occurring outbreaks). However, no insecticide works as a repellent against infestation or re-infestation.

Head lice have been known to take up residence in eyebrows and eyelashes. Never use vinegar or other product close to the eyes! Instead, seek physician advice in the treatment of these sensitive areas.

Always use your own brush or comb when grooming hair.

Any mammal can be victimized by most varieties of lice. If you suspect your pet has lice, treat them and their bedding immediately. A veterinarian friend suggests bathing pets in pure coconut oil after their baths to rid and prevent infestations.

If you or a family member has a known allergy to vinegar or any ingredient in the shampoo/conditioning product, do not use. Instead, seek an alternative product.

Dead nits cemented to the hair are not indicative of active infestations. Anyone that deliberately embarrasses a child for having cemented nits should be reminded to look up the facts.

While head lice are not known to carry diseases, their bites can cause an allergic reaction in certain individuals. Likewise, an infection caused by frequent scratching of bite areas is common, particularly among young children.

Lice are parasites that thrive on blood. Anyone that tells you the humane way to regard these parasites is in harboring a live and let live attitude, then that person is utterly indifferent to the suffering lice cause humans and other mammals. It is far healthier for you and yours to say goodbye to these vermin and in the most eagerly confrontational way possible!


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  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 2 months ago

    Vinegar has so many uses so I am not surprised it will help eliminate lice and nits. I found your story interesting and very informative.

  • thebiologyofleah profile image

    Leah Kennedy-Jangraw 2 months ago from Massachusetts

    My daughter is not in school yet but I have heard horror stories like yours about trying to get rid of lice. What an ordeal! Thank you for this article. I have heard from others as well that natural products work better than the prescription stuff. I am taking notes! Thank you for this informative guide.

  • WillStarr profile image

    WillStarr 2 months ago from Phoenix, Arizona

    I never thought of using vinegar, but it is an acid so great idea! We had our own fun with head lice years ago in Kentucky.

  • DDE profile image

    Devika Primić 2 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

    Informative and well-researched on this unique topic.