How to Handle Head Lice on Clothes and Laundry

Head lice
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Head lice are very common in schools, day cares and play groups. Children share hats, hair brushes and hair accessories spreading the lice through head-to-head contact. Infestation can also happen from shared bedding, stuffed toys and clothing.

What are Head Lice?

The first hint that head lice may have invaded your home is either a note home from school that another student is infected or a child complaining about head itching or a tickling feeling of something moving in their hair.

Upon closer examination of the scalp, you may tiny, tiny white dots clinging to the hair (nits or lice eggs), gray moving nymphs or adult lice that are also grayish and about the size of a sesame seed. Your doctor or pharmacist can help you recognize them and recommend treatment options. We are going to focus on getting rid of the head lice on sheets, towels, clothes and toys.

Basic Recommendations for Getting Rid of Head Lice

Every professional is going to tell you to first comb your child's hair with a special comb to remove both adult lice and the eggs or nits they lay which attach to individual shafts of hair. Head-to-head contact is the most contagious form of transmission. But to prevent transmission or re-infestation, you'll want to wash your child's personal items thoroughly in addition to vacuuming the floor and furniture in those areas of your home where your child usually sits or plays.

Head lice laundry is a three-step process.

Step One: Gather Lice Exposed Items

Any item that your child used or wore during the two-day period leading up to the initial head lice treatment should be cleaned. Adult head lice can only live about two days without being on a host to feed. In addition to bed linens, don't forget:

  • clothing and coats
  • towels
  • fabric hair accessories like headbands and, of course, hats and earmuffs
  • couch and throw pillows
  • stuffed toys and any faux fur items
  • bookbags and totes

Step Two: Sort Infested Items

Sort items by washable, dry clean only and those that can be neither washed nor dry-cleaned.

Step Three: Cleaning Lice Exposed Laundry

For washable items like bed linens and towels, use the hottest water temperature setting on your washer and launder as usual. Tumble in the dryer on a high temperature for at least 20 minutes to ensure the insects are dead. For really delicate items, allow them to soak in warm water with plenty of laundry detergent for several hours and then wash as usual to remove the lice.

Items that are dry clean only should be sealed in a plastic garbage bag until they can be taken to a professional cleaner. Be sure to tell the cleaner of the infestation.

For items that cannot be washed or those that you do not want to take to a professional cleaner, there are two ways you can take care of the problem at home. One is the one week quarantine. Place the items in a plastic bag and seal the bag tightly for one week. After a week, vacuum each item to remove dead lice or take them outside for a good shake.

If the item can't be under quarantine for a week - perhaps a favorite sleeping toy - use freezer time. Adult lice can not live if subjected to extremely cold temperatures. Infested items can be bagged and frozen for four hours.

The life span of an adult louse on a host ranges up to 30 days. During this time, the female head louse can deposit about 90 eggs. After incubating for seven to 10 days, the nits hatch and, after another 10 days, mature into adult head lice and the cycle begins again. Off the host, adult head lice can live about two to four days at 74 degrees Fahrenheit (F) and one to two days at 86 degrees. Nits will remain alive off the host for up to 10 days; they will not hatch at or below room temperature (68 degrees F).

Whatever method you use, be diligent. Head lice can be stubborn and you may need to take precautions for several weeks to be sure that you have gotten rid of every single one.