How to Control Lice in a Survival Situation

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: November 24, 2020
How to Control Lice in a Survival Situation

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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.  Having had lice myself when I was a young adult, just thinking about it gives me the heebie-jeebies.

How to Control Lice in a Survival Situation | Backdoor Survival

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

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

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 Lice

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.

Natural Remedies

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.

By Joe Alton, MD, of
Co-Author, The Survival Medicine Handbook

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”.   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.

Read More:  The Miracle of Tea Tree Oil: 80 Amazing Uses for Survival and DIY Simple Salve: An All Purpose, All Natural Ointment and Carrier Oil

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!

If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to email updates.  When you do, you will receive a free, downloadable copy of my e-Book, The Emergency Food Buyer’s Guide.

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Below you will find the items related to today’s article as well as other favorites.

The Survival Medicine Handbook: A Guide for When Help is Not on the Way: This book teaches how to deal with all the likely medical issues you will face in a disaster situation, including strategies to keep your family healthy even in the worse scenarios. It covers skills such as performing a physical exam, transporting the injured patient, and even how to suture a wound. This medical reference belongs in every survival library.

Nit Free Terminator Lice Comb:  This is the highest rated lice comb. The Terminator comb is reusable by simply placing it in boiling water for 30 seconds. At the time of this writing and is backed by a money back guarantee not to break.

Rid Shampoo:  Note that Rid shampoo will kill the lice, but not their eggs; be certain to repeat the shampoo treatment 7 days later.  Nix Lotion removes both the lice and their eggs.  Clearlice is a shampoo product that is also a Homeopathic remedy. It contains peppermint as well as other natural ingredients.

The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy: I first became interested in aromatherapy and essential oils in the early 90s which was before they really became mainstream. I read every book I could get my hands on and dabbled at creating synergy’s (a combination of two or more oils that create a chemical compound that is greater than the sum of its individual components). My bible then, and even now, is this book.

Spark Naturals Essential Oils: I use essential oils from Spark Naturals exclusively.  They are high quality yet reasonably priced.  For the treatment of lice, consider tea tree oil (melaleuca), geranium, rosemary, and lavender.  Backdoor Survival readers currently get a 15% discount by using coupon code BACKDOORSURVIVAL at checkout.

Coconut (Fractionated) Carrier Oil:  Once you start using coconut oil, you will be hooked.  This is the liquid form of Coconut Oil, also referred to as FCO.  I have been very satisfied with this FCO from Plant Therapy and like that it comes in a pump bottle.

Smart Lotionmaking: The Simple Guide to Making Luxurious Lotions, or How to Make Lotion from Scratch That’s Better Than You Buy and Costs You LessThere are lot of books on making your own lotions out there but none are better than eBook by my friend and neighbor Anne Watson.  Anne also has a wonderful book on Smart Soapmaking.


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18 Responses to “How to Control Lice in a Survival Situation”

  1. Suffocation worked for us. Just used vegetable oil. Took about 2 or 3 treatments.

    Just doused our hair with plenty of oil and left it on for several hours.

    Save the Olive and Coconut oil since it’s a bit expensive. However Coconut oil is fantastic to condition hair.

    • Diatomaceous earth kills some bugs by scratching their shells, so that they dry out in normal environments — it is used for dealing with cock roaches, for instance, or soft grubs in a grain bin. DE consists of the glass-like scratchy microscopic fossils of ancient sea-diatoms. It is NOT good to get near your eyes, or to inhale.

      I agree that smothering the lice is probably the best bet — and that involves using something thick and liquid like soap, oil, grease, lotion. Which is the exact opposite of what DE needs to work — a dry, airy exposure. Go with oil of lotion — or lots of thick liquid soap — forget the DE.

  2. This article just barely skipped over what REALLY works…SUFFOCATION! Use ANYTHING thick! My daughter had lice when she was young. We went and bought box after box of, what I now know is just chemicals, Nix, and all that other CRAP! SAVE YOUR MONEY!
    After AAAALLLL that reading, this article just said one tiny paragraph of WHAT REALLY WORKS, here:

    “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.”

    When all thosed boxed medications at walmart, and drug stores, DID NOT work, someone told me to do. I was desperate, and I did it.
    USE VASOLINE (haven’t tried the items in this article, but sounds like those would work)…cover the head, and especially rub it to the very bottom of the hair. Leave it in just a few mins or overnight (whichever you have time for), and rinse. Doesn’t take but a few mins to suffocate all lice! BAM, done! (Make sure you get every hair covered).
    All that reading could be one or two paragraphs, but no, you got to read a whole book about lice, and by the time you get to what you REALLY should do, your tired of reading. Who has time to read all that?

    “there isn’t enough evidence to be certain that this method will work” BS, it’s only because corporations WANT YOU to buy their EXPENSIVE chemicals, and apparantly this site does too!

    Also, it might take shampooing a FEW times, to get this out of the hair, but well worth it!

  3. I used a vinegar rinse. After washing the children’s hair, I wound rinse their hair with a 50% solution of vinegar and water. It worked. Really anything that coats the hair deters the egg laying.

  4. EYUUCH, just talking about lice makes my head itch.
    With the proliferation of the “super” lice in some of the states, how would one go about getting rid of them? Supposedly they are resistant to the prescriptions that get rid of lice. I have grand children in a state afflicted with these “Super” lice Knock wood they haven’t been exposed as far as we can tell but I am worried about it. especially my grandson, who has multiple allergies.

    • Perhaps your family could try out the Cetaphil, vegetable oils and other hair dressings as preventive measures, and teach the kids how to comb each other’s hair with fine-toothed combs. Needs to be done diligently. Report back as to what worked best for them.

    • Chris,
      Thank you I will let my son and DIL know. However they live with their mother and she, well let’s just say she isn’t the most diligent about things like that UNTIL they become a problem or it blows up in her face.

  5. One of the best ways to get rid of lice is coconut oil.
    It’s great for your hair! …and it dissolves the bond that holds eggs to hair follicles. I think it also works on the principle of suffocation.

    When my daughters came home with lice, I coated their hair with coconut oil and put it in braids for a day – then used a kitty flea comb in the bathtub before bed. Works great!!

    • Diateomacious earth, like boric acid, is best used in dry places to scratch the skins of certain bugs (cockroaches) so that they dry out. Won’t work in proximity to moisture and oils of human skin. Also, it is like powdered glass — not a healthy thing to apply to delicate tissues.

      My vote is still for Cetaphil, its generic equivalent, or a thick vegetable oil as hair dressing for prevention.

    • i have read that it does but do not have first hand knowledge. i have food grade d e for this and other uses. better to have it to try than nothing at all.

  6. The suffocation methods seems to be the way to go these days. Cetaphil works as well as anything, with no insecticides that lice can become immune to.

    • My vote goes with dan and the Cetaphil. Something thick and slick — as a preventative. In tropical cultures, people dress their kid’s hair with oil — coconut oil being a favorite. It makes the hair “less attractive” to roaming vermin. It also smells good, and like olive oil, untangles hair and keeps it neat and shiny.

      In some cultures, oil is used like Cetaphil to wash hair and skin (Think Ancient Romans — and still some current-day cultures).

      I’ve never experienced or seen lice, possibly because as a child I had someone who cared about my hair, combing it daily and slathering coconut oil in my hair. I hated it at the time, because it seemed greasy-looking, and in cold winter weather my hair would freeze solid in crispy strands. (UGH). My school did not have a lot of lice epidemics, but I seemed protected.

      When living in upscale urban areas as an adult, I was curious about lice — there were so many health department warnings about lice in schools! People who had experienced them in their upscale homes said that CLEAN DRY HAIR attracted lice. Diligent nannies from tropical countries were horrified with dry hair — saying it attracted lice and was “dirty.” Those who allowed their nannies to apply coconut oil or the equivalent to the kids’ hair DAILY experienced no more lice contagion. It was a very strong opinion of most non-medical parents that the children of doctors, sent to school showered but without daily inspection of their hair, were the most common disease vectors.

      I do not know if it is the oil itself, or the daily attention and combing, or both — but I vote for a thick, slick product like coconut oil or Cetaphil (Brilliant Idea, dan!)

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