An Age-Old Plague: Lice Treatments of the Past

Head Lice Treatment

Lice Treatment Shampoo

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Lice have been with humanity for a very long time. It has been theorized that they may have evolved from chimpanzee-specialized parasites almost five and a half million years ago, and then followed us on our developmental path. Lice have been traced to Brazilian mummies dating from 8000 BCE, and, a few thousand years later, Egyptian mummies were entombed with the classic treatment for lice: a fine-toothed comb.

That treatment has been with us for thousands of years for the simple reason that it works. A closely-spaced combing instrument to scrape the hair shaft clean of the nits adhering to it is an efficient, if time-consuming, mechanical method of destruction. It requires a strong light and a patient searcher, but it gets to the root of the problem, so to speak: the nits or eggs of the louse that are constantly hatching and bringing new offenders to the troubled scalp. 

Without eliminating that cycle, the sufferer will never be free of the itchiness or the threat of various skin conditions that lice can cause.

Not to say that people haven’t tried. One popular remedy back in the day (the 1930s, or so) was gasoline. To be fair, gasoline was pretty much being used for everything, back then, perhaps most famously as a homemade dry-cleaning fluid, so it was going to be soaking into little Chip’s scalp at some point, anyway.

The general thought behind this concept was that the gasoline would be toxic to the lice and nits and  … no, seriously, that was the idea. Fortunately, this has been disproven time and again. If you learn nothing else from this article, learn not to slop gasoline onto your child’s head to destroy lice. It’s dangerous and it doesn’t work, anyway.

The same thing can be said for ancient China’s favorite method: mercury.

Without the poisons, then, what to do? Other enterprising methods of destruction included using mayonnaise, honey, or petroleum jelly; by slathering these substances on thickly, and covering the scalp and hair completely, the lice would eventually suffocate.

This is true, but unpleasant, at best. Something to keep in mind, though? Probably not, since adult lice go into a defensive coma of sorts and cannot breathe for upwards of twelve hours. Plus, it doesn’t really do anything to destroy the nits, so you’d have to leave your goop on for a full hatching cycle to kill the nymphs as they hatch, and that’s around two weeks.

If you get truly desperate, you could try an old Egyptian method for those who didn’t want to bother with the nit comb: shave every hair off your entire body every couple of days. This has the benefit of not using virulent toxins, but the downside is you have to shave every hair off your entire body every couple of days.

A comb and a good treatment system are a must when you finally stop laughing at the silly things people used to do to try to rid themselves of these parasites (like spitting chewed-up dates on the scalp; honestly, 1500s-era Europe … come on) and decide to get serious. It’s not just because they’re itchy, although there will come a point when the victim will contemplate whether the scratching could be traded for the fire we mentioned above, because then it will at least stop eventually.

No, it’s because lice are quite irritating and will not go away on their own. You will need an effective and most importantly safe lice treatment that gets rid of both lice and nits. Science has shown via DNA comparisons that the head louse is related to the body louse, which has been implicated in some of the most devastating plagues throughout history. The responsible thing to do is wreck those parasites up as quickly as possible.

Combing is the one constant throughout all treatments, even many of the ones that otherwise don’t work. This is probably why people persist in using the old home remedies: combining them with the process of combing does produce results … results that are almost entirely thanks to the comb and nothing else.

With that said, there are now shampoos and conditioners that are effective at removing the hangers-on. So, now you can finally stop massaging olive oil into your hair and trying to keep it off the pillows while you sleep … and actually accomplish something, instead.