When I heard that some schools are no longer sending kids home for lice, my skin crawled. Of all the blood-sucking parasites we humans attract, lice may be among the most benign. But when it graced my home with its presence years ago, I still found it hard to be grateful that nothing worse had happened.
Lice outbreaks were on the rise that particular summer, and the local camp and town pool circulated cautionary notices daily. By the time school started, rumors and misconceptions were as rampant as the epidemic itself.
I wasn’t taking any chances: My then 7-year-old had unusually thick, long and curly hair, which meant I had to be extra vigilant. I pored over lice-related articles with a fine-tooth comb and became a minor expert on nit prevention. Or so I thought. Each morning I braided my daughter’s hair or knotted it into a tight bun, high above her neckline.
I then applied several revolutions of lice-repellant hair spray to the elaborately coiffed masterpiece, and finished the process by dabbing tea tree oil behind her ears and along the hairline. I marched her to the bus stop, scented and stiff. I warned her not to touch heads while sitting on the bus, and asked that she refrain from hugging her friends until the lice epidemic abated.
So when I got the call from the nurse one brisk fall morning, I was sure she was mistaken. Maybe she saw dry flakes from all the hairspray? When I arrived at school, the nurse showed me a few nits and reassured me that my daughter had no live bugs. Our school’s policy on lice had stated that if nits or live bugs were found, the child would be sent home; however, the child was allowed back to school the following day, even with residual nits. Only live bugs would preclude attendance on subsequent days.
Opponents of “no nit” policies including American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association of School Nurses cite unnecessary absenteeism, the burden on families, misdiagnosis, and the possibility that nits close to the scalp may be “empty shells” or not likely to be contagious. Proponents of the policy, including the National Pediculosis Association advocate community education regarding preventive combing and checking, and enforcement of uniform standards that will ultimately result in less exclusion from school.
To treat my daughter’s head lice, I called a neighbor, who was a nurse and together we placed my child at the kitchen counter under bright lights. Working for over two hours with surgical gloves and two combs, we rid her of nits, and shampooed with nasty chemicals. Later, I found out that the chemical shampoos are not necessary.
After vacuuming the couch and family room rug, I placed my daughter in front of the TV while I went to work on the entire household. I bagged all stuffed animals, pillows and loose objects and cordoned them off in the playroom, which I declared off-limits for weeks. (I later found out that this was as impractical as the chemical shampoo.)
I ran my washing machine and dryer late into the night on the highest heat setting possible, short of starting a fire. I wasn’t taking any chances. My daughter returned to school the next day, marginally traumatized, and has never gotten lice again. No other family members were infected, and none of her close friends got it, either.
But not all parents are taking the same precautionary measures (though I acknowledge going overboard). One local mother, who owned a preschool, felt that lice are a normal part of growing up and that treatment wasn’t necessary. Another mom of four kids told me how she couldn’t get rid of the infestation because at first, she thought shampoo alone, without the comb, would do the trick.
Three of my neighbors went the opposite route, hiring a professional nitpicker to the tune of several hundred dollars each. (The lice lady did not use special shampoos: She advocated meticulous combing of wet conditioned hair under a bright light, from scalp to ends. Only physical removal of every last nit guarantees successful treatment. She also recommended liberally applying olive oil to the hair overnight to suffocate any live bugs.)
At our school, the lice outbreak continued to spread wildly. A per diem nurse was brought in to help the regular school nurse check heads. In the classrooms, kids were assigned garbage bags and were told to put their outerwear and backpacks in them. The open cubbies were lined with hanging black bags, and the stuffed animal reading buddies were stored away. Only when lice spread totally out of control did our school finally reverse course and pass a “no nit policy.” Outbreaks finally—and thankfully—subsided.
Which is why I find myself in the “no-nit” camp. Lice are not dangerous, but they are an itchy, communicable nuisance that can easily and affordably be contained without dangerous or expensive chemicals, when we have the right information. “No nit” policies level the playing field, and incentivize parents to comply in a more uniform way.