Natural remedies are sometimes touted for treatment of head lice, a type of parasitic insect that lives on the scalp and feeds on its host's blood. Spread by close contact with other people, head lice are especially common among school children. Although head lice can cause severe itching, they do not carry diseases or contribute to major medical problems.
Standard treatment for head lice infestation involves the use of an over-the-counter shampoo containing 1% permethrin (a synthetic insecticide). However, certain natural remedies may also help get rid of head lice.
Natural Treatments for Head Lice
Preliminary research suggests that certain natural remedies may help eliminate head lice. Here's a look at some key study findings:
1) Head Lice and Essential Oils
A number of essential oils hold promise in the treatment of head lice infestation. For instance, laboratory experiments indicate that tea tree, peppermint, cinnamon leaf, lavender, and eucalyptus oils can destroy head lice. However, it's important to note that what happens in a test tube may not occur when essential oils are applied to the scalp.
To date, few clinical trials have tested the effectiveness of essential oils in treatment of head lice. The available human-based research includes a 2010 study from BMC Dermatology, which involved 123 people with head lice. Study results revealed that a topically applied product containing tea tree oil and lavender oil was more effective against head lice than a product containing pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide (two substances found in a shampoo commonly used to treat head lice).
2) Head Lice and Neem
Several small studies show that shampoos containing neem extract may help get rid of head lice. Widely used in ayurvedic medicine, neem extract has insecticidal compounds called azadirachtins.
In a 2011 study published in Parasitology Research, for example, scientists used a neem-extract-based shampoo on 12 children with head lice. They found that a one-time, ten-minute treatment with the shampoo destroyed all head lice. Repeating the experiment with eight other children, the study's authors found that a one-time, 20-minute treatment delivered the same results. Other research shows that neem-extract-based shampoo may get rid of head lice and their eggs without triggering any side effects.
Should You Use Natural Remedies for Head Lice?
If you experience symptoms of head lice, it's important to seek treatment as soon as possible. Head lice symptoms include intense itching of the scalp; small red, bumps on the scalp, neck, and shoulders; and tiny, white, hard-to-remove specks (eggs) on the end of each hair. The National Institutes of Health recommend pursuing treatment even if you only find one egg. While head lice infestation typically doesn't lead to serious medical issues, secondary skin infections can result from scratching.
If you're considering the use of natural remedies to eliminate head lice, talk to your doctor before beginning treatment.
Abdel-Ghaffar F, Al-Quraishy S, Al-Rasheid KA, Mehlhorn H. "Efficacy of a single treatment of head lice with a neem seed extract: an in vivo and in vitro study on nits and motile stages." Parasitol Res. 2011 Jun 11.
Abdel-Ghaffar F, Semmler M. "Efficacy of neem seed extract shampoo on head lice of naturally infected humans in Egypt." Parasitol Res. 2007 Jan;100(2):329-32.
Barker SC, Altman PM. "A randomised, assessor blind, parallel group comparative efficacy trial of three products for the treatment of head lice in children--melaleuca oil and lavender oil, pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide, and a "suffocation" product." BMC Dermatol. 2010 Aug 20;10:6.
Gonzalez Audino P, Vassena C, Zerba E, Picollo M. "Effectiveness of lotions based on essential oils from aromatic plants against permethrin resistant Pediculus humanus capitis." Arch Dermatol Res. 2007 Oct;299(8):389-92.
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Mehlhorn H, Abdel-Ghaffar F, Al-Rasheid KA, Schmidt J, Semmler M. "Ovicidal effects of a neem seed extract preparation on eggs of body and head lice." Parasitol Res. 2011 Apr 12.
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National Institutes of Health. "Head lice: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia". August 2011.
Toloza AC, Lucía A, Zerba E, Masuh H, Picollo MI. "Eucalyptus essential oil toxicity against permethrin-resistant Pediculus humanus capitis (Phthiraptera: Pediculidae)." Parasitol Res. 2010 Jan;106(2):409-14.
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