Lice. Just one syllable, a simple little word, that strikes fear in the heart of every parent. Instantly. Are you scratching yet?
As our kids head back to school and we heave a collective sigh of relief, for some of us, the relaxation is tempered by the fear of that phone call or note from school: Your child has lice. Please remove all eggs and bugs before returning her to class.
DON’T PANIC. Seriously. Removing lice is annoying, time-consuming, and often guaranteed to cause tantrums and meltdowns (for the kids, too), but it can be done. Right in the privacy of your own home, and with minimal disruption to toys, sheets, couches, carpets, and even siblings. It can be done without hiring expensive de-lousers, fumigating your kids and your house with pesticides and other chemicals, and shaving their heads. It can be done without putting all their stuffed animals in vacuum-sealed bags for months on end, only to be forgotten and discovered in 20 years. It can be done without buying anything but a single nit-comb. I promise.
Before I get into details, let me clarify a few things: The information I offer is based on the latest findings and recommendations from various public health agencies. These may change. And also: If you have a system that works for you, go for it! People are different. Hair is different. Families are different. If you want to put those damn stuffies in stuffie jail, by all means do it—I don’t know your life. I don’t know what they’ve done. All I know is that you don’t have to. You really don’t.
So here’s the first thing to know: There is a huge difference between head lice and body lice. Body lice carry diseases and can live off the human host and can infest clothing. Body lice flourish in unhygienic areas and should be dealt with immediately through vigorous cleaning of the house, body, and clothes.
Your kid almost certainly doesn’t have body lice. Your kid has head lice. Head lice, while deeply annoying, are not dangerous. They aren’t. The most drastic possible complication (in extreme cases) is a scalp infection caused by scratching that tears the skin. Lice need human blood to live, and most will die off human hosts within 24 hours. That means that they’ll die on sheets, and on the couch, and in stuffed animals, all on their own.
Most countries in the world treat head lice as a nuisance rather than a major health risk, and the United States is gradually adopting this view as well. (And on that note, it may well violate your child’s right to education if he is not allowed in school with a lice infection; the guidelines on this are currently in flux.) We are really, really accustomed to think of head lice as enemy number one, so this adjustment is hard to come around to, but really: Head lice are not dangerous.
That doesn’t make them less annoying, your kid’s head less itchy, or your kid’s friends’ parents less likely to look at her and you in horror. Lice are contagious. Not as contagious as you might think—they can’t jump or fly from one head to another, but they can walk. And they do. Close head-to-head contact is needed (think of those sweet children clustered over art projects or iPads or sitting together in carpool or—most likely—trading goodies in the playground). And once they’ve settled on a head, they lay their eggs near the nice warm scalp (they need human warmth to incubate, so check behind the ears and near the head to find those pesky little nits) and make a home. And it’s there that the trouble begins.
The lice themselves are often killed outright by the chemical lice shampoos. That feels like an easy solution, and that’s why so many people make that often expensive choice as the first option. If you follow directions, that will certainly work for most the live lice, so-called “superlice” excepted. (And do follow directions—be sure to keep the shampoo on for the recommended time, and don’t use conditioner after, which will coat the hair and allow any remaining lice to avoid the deathly-to-them chemicals.) But. The shampoos cannot kill the eggs. These eggs, or nits, take 7-10 days to hatch. Even once you have killed the live lice, the nits can hatch at any time.
You need to remove the nits.
There are all kinds of products out there that say they can do this. And, again, if something has worked for you, go for it. But beware: Nature is smart. Lice have evolved to attach their nits securely to hair using material that is very similar to hair itself. Any product that truly detaches the nit can only do it by breaking the hair itself. Common household suggestions include mayonnaise, olive oil, or gel. All of these will certainly make it easier to run a comb through your hair, and some of them may well slow down live lice if you opt out of the shampoo. But in the end, you need to remove the nits.
There’s one really effective, really low-tech, (really time-consuming) way to do this. A lice comb. That’s really all you need. A lice comb. Well, a lice comb, and a lot of time. And some bobby pins. You have to comb each bit of hair, starting from the scalp. And you have to do it at every angle. And you have to clean the comb after each time it goes through the hair. Again, dousing the hair in gel or oil (NOT conditioner, especially if you’ve used the chemical shampoo) makes this process much easier and less tearful (for you and your kid). The comb will also catch the live bug(gers) pretty effectively, so you really can skip the shampoo if you hate chemicals or spending money.
Most professional de-lousers may use some fancy low-heat machine that kills the live bugs, but in the end, they too will sit and comb. And comb and comb and comb. That may well be worth it if it saves your relationship with your child, or your sanity. But just know that they have no secret, no special sauce, no unique salve. They have experience and skills. (They also have the considerable advantage of not being you.)
So if you do get the dreaded call, take a deep breath. Go to the closest drug store and buy the cheapest, most 80s-tastic gel you can find, a set of bobby pins, and a lice comb. Or two. Pick up some ice cream. Set your kid in front of the screen of their choice, and dive in.
Or just shave his head. That will also work.