Scratch, scratch. You have seen this graphic and now your head is itching. But come on, Super-Mom, you KNOW that in a few weeks, you’re going to be scratching for real. Have you forgotten the pain and suffering of Head Lice Season? Or maybe it’s your child’s first year at “big school”, so you haven’t yet experienced the thrill. Let me explain how things will go.
Sometime in late September, you’ll get the first note home. “Someone in your daughter’s class has head lice”.
“Not my little princess!”, you will say.
A few weeks later, the next note. Someone else in the class has lice. Oh dear. Some people are so unlucky.
In early October, you will have a cursory glance at your child’s scalp. No lice, of course.
In mid-October, the Schoolyard Mummies will begin gossiping about who’s child has lice and whose doesn’t and what the school is doing -or not doing- to help. Not in a MEAN way, of course, and they won’t name names…most of the time.
You will all agree that it’s not life-threatening, and it doesn’t reflect ill-hygiene…. but still, don’t you wish SOME parents would act responsibly and put their child’s hair in a ponytail, for Pete’s sake? And why can’t the school send the lice-infested children home for a couple of days like they used to?
Helpful suggestions from other Mummies on how to get rid of the bugs and their eggs will collapse into teary confessions: (whisper) “my child has it. We are going through hell”. Uh oh. That’s your little princess’s best friend.
You check again. It’s dandruff. It has to be. No. It’s fluff. So. much. fluff. But not fluff. Tiny small, round balls of mini-rice stuck to the hair shaft in a little cluster. But it’s not rice either. It’s way too small.
And so the fun of head lice treatment and prevention begins.
What are Lice and Nits?
Bugs…and their eggs, basically. According to Wikipedia the head louse is an obliagate ectoparasite of humans. Ecto means they head lice live outside the body (good news). Parasite means they live off you (bad news). Obligate means that headlice NEED to stick with you in order to complete their life cycle; take them away from the host (your human scalp) and they die pretty quickly (48 hours). This is very good news. You can kill lice.
Nits are the eggs laid by the lice. They are the really bad news because they are nearly impossible to get rid of. Why? Because they are small and many, and they stick to the hair shaft with a really strong glue. They are difficult to see, and can often be mistaken for dandruff. The only way to get rid of nits is to remove them from the hair.
Why are Head Lice Dangerous?
They’re not. They are just gross, and they itch and they spread like wildfire among young kids. Scratching from lice can cause secondary infections. That’s about it.
How Do I Treat Lice?
You kill them. You can do this by using a pesticide like NIX. This is the most effective treatment, but some lice have become resistant to pesticides. Plus, pesticides are pesticides, right? We are often uneasy about their use, and in my opinion, we should be!
You can also suffocate lice. Since they breathe through their thorax (they have two small respiration holes), you can smother them using Vaseline or lotion or even olive oil or mayonnaise in a shower cap, and they will perish. The crazy thing is that lice can hold their breath for a really long time (the internet consensus seems to be 8 hours), so you have to keep the goop and the cap on at least overnight.
A benzyl alcohol lotion such as Ulesfia will also suffocate lice. This is a relatively new treatment, approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2009. However, it was filed with Health Canada in December 2013, so we can’t use it yet (even though it is actually manufactured in Mississauga!)
Some sources say hair dye can kill lice. But- remember, that’s the live lice only! You still need to comb for nits (which may now be dyed and thus harder to see). Still, if you dye your hair anyway, my thought is that mid-September is a great time to do it. I would never recommend dying a child’s hair. I have seen some children at school with “new” hair around lice season, and I find it really abhorrent. Hair dye is not for kids!
Can Lice Infest Bedsheets and Stuffed Toys?
Kind of, but it’s not that bad. Lice and nits can easily be removed from bedding, stuffies and hairbrushes.
One way to kill lice that may have jumped away from their host (they cannot fly) is to freeze them. After cleaning and washing hairbrushes, you can place them in an airtight bag in the freezer for 48 hours.
You can take care of stuffed animals and blankets by placing them in an airtight bag too. Lice can live away from their host (a human scalp) for 48 hours only, so the live ones will die in two days.
Putting items in a hot dryer will also take care of the lice and nits that have strayed onto clothing, bedding or toys. Some say 20 minutes will do the trick. I’d err on the side of caution and make it 30.
So, if you Can Kill Head Lice, Why are They So Hard to Get Rid Of?
Lice are easy to get rid of- you can kill them all with one treatment. But the problem is their offspring: nearly invisible eggs (nits), which stick to the hair shaft with a virtually impenetrable glue.
Have a look at the life cycle below, and you will understand why, when you think your hair and scalp is lice and nit free, you could have a secondary infestation in a week. This is the reason for the saying: “treat lice twice”.
The lice you killed left their legacy: hundreds of little eggs, which hatch 7 days later after they have been laid. ( a female louse lays 4-6 eggs per day). The eggs are very hard to see, especially in the first few days, and the newly hatched lice, or nymphs are also almost impossible to detect. This means that after all your hard work, you could suddenly have a full-blown re-infestation. The key here is to get rid of the nits, and there is only one effective way to do that: comb, comb, comb!
How Do I Treat Nits?
Although there are some products (including vinegar) which are said to get rid of nits, they tend only to weaken the glue holding the nit to the hair shaft. Most smart Mums know that the only true way to remove nits is to physically remove them! In other words, if your child has a case of head lice, then you are in for hours of meticulous combing.
The internet is awash with videos showing how you how to comb for nits. This one is particularly good. All of them recommend sectioning the hair, so try to have some clips of bobby pins on hand. You will also need gloves, and apron, some paper towel and a bowl of water. Some parents use half a bottle of hair conditioner (applied to dry hair) in order to make combing easier and more effective.
How do I Prevent Further Infestations of Lice?
The good news is that the treatment for nits is the same as the prevention of lice, so you can start even before school begins. Just comb, comb, comb. Every day. And if you see a louse or a nit, start checking every member of the family – every day!
Placing your child’s hair in a tight bun or french braid is an excellent way to ensure that she doesn’t invite lice back into her hair. You may also wish to use a “hairspray helmet”- hairspray will provide a barrier- any visiting lice will not hang around!
One excellent prevention method is to be open with other parents about your head lice problem. Spreading the news about a confirmed case in your child’s class (even if -horrors- that case is you), will alert other parents that it is time to comb.
If you are unable to talk to other parents about head lice, contact the school to let them know of your case.
Finally, it is said that rosemary, tea tree oil and some other essential oils repel lice. At the risk of having yoru child smell like a fish n chip shop, or a doctor’s office, these fragrant drops might just keep the bugs away.
The most important thing to remember is that no treatment is 100% effective, and a single treatment is almost never effective.
Plus, even if you did manage to get every single nit and lice out of your child’s head, you are never safe until every single child in the school is also nit-free…and that’s a tall order!
The best thing you can do right now is get ahead of the game, and add a lice comb to your school supply list, so that you can check for nits effectively. Once your child starts school, it’ll be the most valuable thing in your medicine cabinet.