Head lice has been around forever. In fact, analysis of Peruvian mummies suggests that it was passed from the New World to the Old World, instead of the other way around. For those non-history majors, that’s a long frickin’ time ago. Head lice are wingless insects that spend their entire life on the human scalp, feeding exclusively on human blood. So if you’re pissed about your studio apartment in Manhattan, think again, try living in someone’s hair (while giving birth) for a few months. On the flip side, lucky for us, humans seem to be the only known host. Head louse are not the vectors of any known diseases and have been regarded by most as a cosmetic rather than a medical problem.
Back in the day, when I was in elementary school, you always knew who had ‘the lice’. The boys left school on Friday with a Scott Baio-esque head of hair, the follicle ends dancing in the wind like they were at a Grateful Dead concert. They came back on Monday with a crew-cut like they were preparing to ship off for basic training at Fort Benning. The girls, they just didn’t show up at school for a few days.
You don’t have to be a genius to notice the negative stigma attached (no pun intended) to head lice. When you heard about someone getting it, it was like, ‘oh shit, here come the dirtballs’. But that’s not necessarily true. There isn’t any proven evidence that lice are attracted to clean hair VS. dirty hair. THEY’RE COMING AFTER YOU, regardless of how clean or dirty you are – lice could give a crap what color you are, how often you bathe, how much you have in your savings account, whether you’re with AT&T or Verizon or how often you go to church, if at all. According to the CDC, there are 6-12 million cases of head lice each year in this country.
I think it’s important that we work to educate ourselves about this hot-button issue, and squash the negative stigma that accompanies this unfortunate nightmare.
If you’re a parent and haven’t had to deal with this, I applaud you (I hate you), you’ve won more than a few rounds of Russian Roulette.
For those new parents or those unaffected up to this point, grab a glass of wine or a handle of whiskey and allow me to spin a yarn about OUR experience with ‘the lice’.
It was chilly day in November of 2013 (NOTE: NOT PRESENT DAY, FOLKS – SO DON’T RUN CANCELLING PLANS ON US THIS WEEKEND), I had been shuttling the kids back and forth, dropping them off and picking them up at preschool. It wasn’t until we got home and settled in that I had opened up their backpacks and read this little gem…
It felt as if I had been cresting the tallest roller coaster in the world and the bottom had dropped out from beneath me. I grabbed an empty Jersey Mike’s hoagie bag and began to hyperventilate. I texted my wife at work and then proceeded to call her to see if she had seen the text less than ten seconds after it was sent. It was full-blown emotional trauma. I hadn’t even examined my kids’ heads yet, but I was ready to hold candlelight vigil in our driveway around the bonfire, as we burned every stuffed animal, ski hat and pillow that we owned. I felt like life was over for us. And we didn’t even have ‘the lice’. Yet.
‘Yet’ being the pivotal word. Keep reading, because it only gets better.
When my wife arrived home that evening, we gave a cursory glance to the kids’ noggins and, seeing nothing, went about our dinner and bath time routine. The next morning, however, the wheels came off. While braiding Ava’s hair, Jen stumbled upon an insect.
completely psychotic and OCD super organized man of the house, I had already loaded up on prophylactic treatments – JUST. IN. CASE.
We didn’t want to tell anyone. We feared that the CDC would pull up at our house in vans with tinted windows and cordon off the property with hazard tape and pitch a tent over our house. We were ashamed. Not just ashamed, but rather mortified.
Herein lies the problem, or at least the beginning of the problem.
If you have young kids in school, you almost definitely will encounter this at some point, though admittedly Jen and I never had lice as kids. It’s difficult to combat, however, it’s actually tough to spread as well. There are many myths out there about lice – they’re NOT LIKE FLEAS. They’re wingless – they don’t jump from person to person and they can’t survive more than 24 hours when they climb off of one head and onto a sofa or pillow or carpeting. So chances of just catching it like that are slim to none.
The school administration can separate individual belongings (coats & hats) and bag them up, which is GREAT, however, it might not stop it from spreading. Kids tend to fall all over one another, they wrestle and hug are constantly getting in each others’ faces. They play dress up. There isn’t much any of us can do about that. So the best thing to do it just BE PREPARED – know your enemy.
Lice are small. How small, you ask? 2-3 millimeters in length when they’re grown. They’re about as small as a sesame seed. They’re very hard to see unless you’re specifically looking. They attach themselves to the base of your hair follicles, right next to the scalp. And then they have babies. And they won’t come out when you regularly shampoo – so you can have the cleanest hair on the block and still have lice. Fact.
In addition to the actual live lice, the babies they lay are called “nits.” Nits are little white things that are attached with a glue-like substance to the base of the follicle – they have to stay very warm, which is why they’re laid next to the scalp – they can’t survive and hatch if that hair falls, or is brushed out.
When you get ‘the lice’, you have to treat your kid (or in our situation we preventatively treated everyone in the family) with an over-the-counter shampoo solution (see below) to remove the live lice and kill the eggs (nits). But parents take note – what sucks about this situation is that you don’t just wash your hair once and you’re done – BECAUSE THAT WOULD BE TOO EASY. You have to carefully comb through your child’s hair every night for at least a week looking for nits, and you can only get them out with a “nit comb” (these come in boxes with lice shampoo, generally, or you can buy a heavy-duty comb with metal bristles).
Given that most of these shampoos smell like you’re dousing your kid with kerosene, it’s important to know which ingredients are the most effective. The FDA has approved over-the-counter lice products as safe and effective when used according to the Drug Facts label instructions. Permethrin, most commonly found in the product NIX (which is what we used) or Piperonyl Butoxide and Pyrethrum Extract, commonly found in PRONTO or RID are the active ingredients to look for.
You’ve got to be vigilant when it comes to lice. Once the first shampoo treatment is done, you’ll need to wait anywhere from 7-10 days before another treatment can be made – and if you weren’t successful the first time around, go ahead and dig your eyeballs out with dinner spoons because you’ll continue to see the insects. Head lice can live about 28 days, multiply quickly, and can lay up to ten eggs a day in the right conditions.
Head lice is something that most parents with young kids will deal with – so don’t get down on yourself, it’s not your fault. One of the best things you can do during peak season (September and January with everyone returning from holiday) is to talk to your kids, inform them about lice and how it’s transferred. Advise them not to share hats or coats with other students, ask them to keep their winter weather gear in their own cubby, locker or on their own hooks.
And for the love of God, stop spreading this ridiculous notion that lice is a socio-econimic or hygiene issue – I’m here to tell you that it’s not. It’s an equal opportunity pain-in-the-freaking-ass.
If you’re feeling itchy, share your lice story in the comment section below, we’d like to feel as if we weren’t the only ones.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a sponsored partnership between Dad or Alive and the CHPA Educational Foundation’s KnowYourOTCs blogger program, however, the thoughts and opinions are all mine.