Throughout history, one of the most consistent problems that has faced soldiers, refugees, and homeless populations is lice. Read through the journals of soldiers throughout WW1 and WW2, and you’ll see countless references to lice. During the 1970s lice infestations (technically called pediculosis) reached pandemic levels. That was attributed to increases in poverty, sexual promiscuity, and international travel. Typically, social upheaval is where we find the greatest number of lice infestations. It is interesting to note that poverty and sexual promiscuity can probably be pretty safely correlated with social upheaval.
Living life without all of the modern amenities seems to predispose someone to ending up with an infestation. But that’s where the problem lies, doesn’t it? As a prepper, you do everything you can to make sure that your family has a proper level of disaster-security so that should anything happen, your family will be prepared. You have already accepted the possibility that civilization may be a veneer, that bad things can happen, and that bad things could even happen to you. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to have an underground warehouse fully stocked with every potentially scarce good for every possible disaster scenario, but it does mean that increasing your knowledge base on at least the basics of disaster survival is a wise idea.
So, with that being said, what can you do should those bad things happen, should there be a breakdown in society, should you end up homeless, bugging out, or whatever, and you/somebody you love ends up with lice?
It doesn’t even have to be somebody you love. If a Katrina-level hurricane levels your community, how long will it take for somebody infested in your church’s shelter to spread the infestation? I’m not really sure if there are set numbers out there for that, but I’m pretty positive you wouldn’t want to experiment to find out at that point in time. And I’m not necessarily advocating the exclusion of anybody infested with lice from receiving your care and attention. What I am advocating is that you understand what you are getting yourself into when you create that exposure, and that you have something of a game plan developed to mitigate your risk in this scenario.
Before we delve further into treatment, it’s helpful to know a bit about the life cycle of lice. A typical lice egg can remain viable away from a host for around 30 days, and will hatch within 7-10 days. After that point, the little guy hatches and you have a newborn lice bug. There are three main types of lice: body lice, head lice, and crab lice–what are commonly called just “crabs”.
Body lice infest, you guessed it, your body. They like to live among the skin, and will even hide in clothing and bed sheets, coming out from their comfortable hiding places to feed. They are typically transmitted through contact with an infested person, or via infested objects (e.g. sheets, sleeping bags, coats, etc.).
Head lice infest the hair of the scalp, and are transmitted via head-to-head contact or by using items that have touched infested peoples’ hair (e.g. hats, scarves, pillowcases, brushes, towels)
And lastly, crab lice live amongst pubic hair. They are typically spread via sexual contact.
Body lice can typically live about a week without feeding. Head and crab lice live around 2 days without feeding. So even if the infested person has been removed from the scene, what they came into contact with can still transmit an infestation for a few days afterwards.
Why Do Lice Matter?
That’s kind of a stupid statement isn’t it? Why do lice matter? “After all, they’ll only make you itch a little bit, and that’s about it.” If you believe that, then unfortunately, you’re wrong.
Yes, lice will make you itch, but it will most certainly be more than a little bit. That heavy scratching to find relief can soon lead to skin abrasions which in turn can lead to infections as well. It doesn’t take much for an opening in the skin to quickly grow infected when you’re in a survival situation, as any Vietnam vet will tell you. And infections in those types of environments can quickly prove fatal.
But the most important reason that preventing lice infestations matters is because they can and do transmit deadly diseases. Trench fever and typhus, to be specific.
Trench fever epidemics occurred throughout Europe during both WW1 and WW2. It can lead to headache, malaise, shin pain, and dizziness. It’s typically nonfatal, but it most certainly is not pleasant.
Typhus is a different story, however. It’s a bit more bloodthirsty. Headache, chills, malaise, fever, and general pains are the initial symptoms. A macular eruption typically appears next, which will soon spread to the majority of the body. Cough, confusion, drowsiness, coma, seizures, and hearing loss can follow soon afterwards. Typhus wards were known as a terrifying place not too long ago, due to the delirium of the patients inside. The case-fatality rate is between 10%-to-40%, in the absence of treatment.
Let’s see what we can do
We’re going to assume that you’re in a disaster situation here without ready access to the typical medical treatments. How would you treat lice in a TEOTWAWKI scenario?
To start with, a fine-toothed louse comb is a good way to systematically weed those little suckers out of your hair. You can pick them up pretty inexpensively online (because who wants to buy lice treatment in store? “Hello pastor! How are you?”). There are some excellent head lice treatments that can be found on Amazon as well.
Taking a shower is good, but even after you take a shower, those little fellas can still infest your clothes or sheets, so you have to ensure that those have been cleared as well. Laundering with 131 degree+ Fahrenheit water for 20 minutes is considered long enough to kill lice hiding in clothing. Dry tumbling of clothes on a hot cycle is recommended as well.
Residual insecticide such as can be applied to clothing as well for an added layer of protection, and sprays such as Lice Defense can be used to treat backpacks, furniture, etc. to prevent spreading of infestations as well.
Perchance none of the above methods are available to you (e.g. bugging out and on the move), then storing clothing in plastic bags for two weeks will rid the clothes of lice as well. The lice won’t have contact with a food source, and will subsequently starve as a result.
Incorporating Lice Care in a post-disaster scenario
Let’s say that disaster has happened. You can imagine it’s a locally devastating hurricane that’s cut your community off from outside assistance, an EMP terrorist attack, or the outbreak of war while you’re on a missions trip in Africa. Whatever. The point is that things are pretty bad, and they show no sign of improving anytime in the near future. There’s going to be an increasing number of mobile refugees constantly on the move in the search for food, shelter, medical care, safety, and just something better.
You and a group of neighbors/fellow church members/friends have organized into a group in a relatively safe place with something of a source of supplies set aside. For whatever reason, you’re willing to take in fellow survivors. Sure, you could exclude anybody with pediculosis from joining your camp, but if you do decide to take in an infested person, what can you do to minimize the risk of their spreading infestation?
Here are a few ideas:
- Sleeping bags separated and not in contact with each other.
- No sharing of sleeping materials (sheets/covers/pillows/blankets/sleeping bags/etc.)
- No sharing of any articles of clothing, combs, or brushes
- Avoiding bodily contact between each other (hugging/handshaking/jostling/etc.)
- Shower and lice-killing washing of all clothing articles upon entering the camp the first time
- Designated chairs
- Avoiding physical contact with outside survivors
- Treating any found/purchased clothing and other potentially infested items before using them
Wrapping it up
Controlling lice infestations before they reach epidemic proportions is very important post-disaster. Thankfully though, there are a number of steps that can be taken now to mitigate your risk in the future. Improving your knowledge on the subject is one of the primary things that you can do now, and I trust that you’ve found this article insightful.
For more information on lice and lice-borne diseases, I highly recommend the book The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl by Arthur Allen. It’ll show you just how scary typhus can be.
- Porth C, Matfin G. Pathophysiology: Concepts of Altered Health States (8th ed.) 1580-1581
- Heymann D. Control of Communicable Diseases Manual (2nd ed.) pp. 447-448; p. 621; p. 621
About The Author
Aden Tate is the author of The Faithful Prepper: A Christian’s Perspective on Prepping, published by Prepper Press in July, 2019. You can also follow his work at adentate.weebly.com