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Head lice - What treatments work for head lice?

BMJ Group Medical Reference

Head lice can be irritating, but they are basically harmless. There are treatments that will, in about 8 in 10 cases, get rid of them quickly. However, head lice are common, and many children get them repeatedly during their early years at school.

Most treatments are lotions or liquids. Shampoos are also available but may not work as well. Most treatments contain chemicals that kill insects (insecticides). If you follow their instructions, they are safe. Sometimes they don't work because the head lice have developed a resistance to the chemicals (this means that the chemicals will no longer kill all the head lice). If this happens, you will have to try a different treatment.

Key points about treating head lice

  • Treat yourself or members of your family for head lice only after you've found a live louse in your hair or theirs.

  • Chemical treatments for head lice (insecticides) may work. But head lice in the UK are becoming resistant to chemical treatments. So it's hard to say which treatment works best.

  • A silicone-based treatment called dimeticone may also help get rid of head lice. Researchers think that head lice won't become resistant to it as they do to chemical insecticides.

  • Use liquids or lotions rather than shampoos. The amount of chemical in shampoos is so small that these are unlikely to work.

  • Treatments may not always kill head lice eggs. This means you may have to repeat the treatment after seven days to catch newly hatched head lice.

  • If you use a treatment correctly and it doesn't work, it probably means the head lice are resistant to it. Don't use the same chemical again.

  • Liquid treatments are water-based and lotions are alcohol-based. Both work. But it is best not to use alcohol-based treatments on anyone with severe eczema or asthma.

  • Combing your hair with a louse detection comb (also known as 'bug busting') may work. But we need more research to know for certain.

  • There's not enough evidence to say whether herbal treatments work.

Which treatments work best? We've looked at the research and given a rating for each treatment according to how well it works.

Treatments for head lice

Treatments that are likely to work
  • Dimeticone: This is a fairly new treatment and is made from silicone. It is not an insecticide like many other treatments for head lice. Brand names include Hedrin and Linicin. More...

  • Malathion: This is a chemical that kills insects (an insecticide). The brand names include Derbac-M and Prioderm. More...

  • Permethrin: This is an insecticide with the brand name Lyclear. More...

  • Phenothrin: This is an insecticide with the brand name Full Marks. More...

Treatments that need further study Other treatments

We haven't looked at the research on these treatments in the same detail we have for most of the treatments we cover. (To read more, see Our method.) But we've included some information because you may have heard of them or be interested in them.

  • Carbaryl: You can get this treatment only on prescription. It isn't used very often. The brand name is Carylderm. More...

  • Head lice repellents: These include oils and sprays that are thought to deter head lice. More...

Last Updated: June 22, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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