Previously published Aug 31, 2008 on a web site that no longer exists
WARNING: Reading this article may cause you to scratch your head.
Two decades ago the little girls who lived down the street from my kids and me came over frequently to play with my youngest daughter. I noticed them scratching the backs of their heads but thought nothing of it until my daughter started doing the same thing. One by one my other children began scratching the backs of their heads, too, and eventually so did I.
The little girls' mother's vigorous head scratching indicated that she had the same problem. She and I concluded that we all had some kind of disease. Seriously, we really did. We didn't have a name for it and none of us felt sick, though, so we dealt with the itching.
Then I met with my family. After hugs and welcomes, after we had spent several hours together, I mentioned to my dad, a former barber, that my kids and I might have one of the diseases mentioned in some of his old barber books. In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have mentioned the word, "disease" at the dinner table. My mother leapt to her little feet and ran over to examine our heads.
And that was when the craziness set in. Everybody jumped. Hands flew into hair. What followed was complete chaos. My sister, a future nurse at the time, propelled herself to action. The plan included phone calls to pharmacies, a trip to the drugstore, and a basement sink loaded with lots of lice removal products. One by one, we went downstairs and washed our hair with the products. One by one the towels went into the washing machine. Mom scurried to wash the chairs and the couches, the floors, and even the walls.
The process however was far from over. While my son's hair took only a matter of minutes, picking nits from the hair of my daughters and myself was a process that would take more hours than we had in a day. Our hair was very long and very thick. I did the best I could, put the treatment on one more time, picked more nits, washed all the bedding, cleaned all the furniture, scrubbed the floors, vacuumed the rugs, and fell into bed exhausted.
The next morning, after spending even more time pulling nits from their hair, I told the girls I would continue the process when they returned from school. Their day was cut short, though, when a lice check at the school prevented them from returning to school until all nits were removed. I panicked. That could take months.
What could I do? I had two jobs and I was a full-time student. Where would I find the time to remove what looked like a kazillion nits? Screaming, inconsolable and, quite frankly, a little scary, I collapsed sobbing into one of the principal's waiting room chairs. A woman working behind the desk offered nonchalantly: Cut their hair.
Cut their hair?
Our shoulders slumped as the beauty operator sliced though feet of hair that fell in slow motion to the floor of the beauty shop. I felt so defeated. That a little bug, only slightly larger than a mustard seed, could wreak such havoc was unbelievable.
When I told the mother down the street about our condition, her first comment was, "Well, you didn't get it from us!"
Having lice is a dirty little secret nobody wants to share and the stigma attached to having lice causes shame and embarrassment. But the reality is that anybody, yes anybody, can get it.
Finding all the nits in a head full of hair, though, takes time. And fighting an enemy you can't see requires knowledge and prevention.
WHAT CAUSES LICE?
Direct contact. Children who share pillows, hats, combs, clothing, or other personal items are likely to contact lice. Just being in close personal contact can cause lice to crawl from victim to victim. They don't leap from one head to another or fly through the air. Long hair not clipped or banded invites these unwelcome pests to inhabit new hosts.
WHAT ARE LICE NITS?
The female louse lays eggs, called nits. Nits cling to hair like glue adheres to paper, and they sit close to the scalp. Hair washing does not remove them and at this stage you probably won't feel anything. In approximately two days, you could have as many as eight nits clinging to your scalp, all of which will hatch in about a week. After they hatch, they partake of their first meal - blood from beneath your scalp. You will now feel the urge to scratch.
If you haven't discovered these pests living in your hair at this point, in approximately a week and a half each of those eight nits becomes an adult. And the process begins again with new females laying even more nits.
While the total lifespan of a louse is only about twenty-five days from the moment the egg appears, the adult louse has nine or ten days to lay its eggs, giving lice generations to do extensive damage.
HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LICE AND DANDRUFF
Dandruff removes easily. Pull one from a hair shaft and it either flakes off or slides easily down the hair.
Nits are smaller than dandruff and feel grainy. Nits stick to hair. Only a firmly grasped fingernail or lice comb can pull the nit all the way to the end of the hair.
Dandruff is white. Nits are tinged with gray or yellow.
HOW TO TREAT HEAD LICE
Check with your child's school to see if they perform regular lice checks. If they don't, ask them to start. Even if they do, though, you will want to perform your own lice checks.
No matter how clean you are, no matter how wealthy you are, if you or your children have any contact at all with other human beings, you are at risk of lice contamination.
Numerous treatments, which can take up to twenty-one days, are available. Treatment is a three-step process: remove the lice from the hair; remove the nits from the hair; remove the lice from home and auto.
Various home remedies include vinegar, olive oil, mayonnaise, or tea tree oil (lice find it difficult to breathe in oil), but they caution that the remedy will kill only the live louse. You will still need to remove the nits.
Pesticides such as Pyrethrins and Permethrin lotion (Center for Disease Control's treatments of choice) are used to treat head lice, but use them with extreme caution. If you have any medical condition at all, and especially if you are pregnant, have allergies, or if your child is under the age of two, consult your physician before using pesticides. Common products include Rid® and Nix®.
Removing nits requires a special fine-toothed comb such as the LiceOut™ comb or the LiceMeister™ comb (The LiceMeister® Comb was once featured on the CBS series, CSI). It may also require the use of a magnifying glass and direct lighting. Because nits can be microscopically small, killing them may take more than one treatment.
HOW TO TREAT YOUR HOME AND CAR AFTER A LICE INFESTATION
Because live lice last only a day or two, treating your home after treating your hair is a matter of caution. Don't sit on furniture before it is has been cleaned. Clean all bedding, including pillows, sheets, blankets, and pillow cases before you use them again. Vacuum all mattresses, carpeting, and furniture.
Sanitize all materials used in the removal of lice, including brushes and combs. Launder any towels used in the removal of lice. Wash throw rugs that fit in your washing machine.
Depending on the time of year and the temperature, launder all hats, scarves, gloves, sweaters, sweatshirts, and coats. Wash all clothing that was worn prior to lice removal.
Stuffed animals can either be laundered or placed in a plastic bag for a couple of weeks. (Real animals are not affected by this type of lice.)
Wash your car, paying particular attention to headrests, and car seats.
HOW TO PREVENT LICE
Pay attention to warning signs. If your child is scratching his or her head more than usual, and if the scratching is behind the ears or at the back of the head just above the neck, you may have a lice problem.
While those two areas are the most common places to find lice, lice will plant themselves anywhere on your head, migrating to any warm spot, even on top of the head. Perform frequent lice checks using a magnifying glass and a lice comb that removes nits. Outdoor lighting will give you the best advantage. If you find something suspicious, try removing it with your fingernail. If it flakes off, it is probably dandruff. If it doesn't budge, it is probably lice.
While we encourage our children to share their items, in the case of hygiene, personal items should be off-limits, especially those that pertain to hair, such as brushes and barrettes. Promote your children's sharing when it comes to toys, but dissuade them from sharing personal items such as brushes and combs. Using an example of shared toothbrushes may help.
For more information, please visit The National Pediculosis Association or The American Head Lice Information Center.
In conclusion, know that ANYONE CAN GET LICE. And with knowledge, persistence, and prevention, anybody can get rid of it too.