Lice. I know … Yuk!

CDC photo

Lice. There, I said it. Now, I will have to type with one hand and scratch my head with the other. Why do those four little letters frighten me so? I know many families who have had it and successfully rid themselves of it. Those who have been through it more than once say the first time it happens, you panic. The second time you realize it is no big deal — kind of like sex. With three long-haired girls, I, of course expect the school nurse to call at any moment with the dreaded, “Please pick up your child. She has lice.” At which point, despite all reason, I will feel like a dirty, inferior mother. Then, I will cry, fumigate my house, shave all our heads, spend thousands on lice-pickers (there’s a job for you) and by all counts, act like an irrational lunatic. Seriously, I should know better, but there is just something about bugs.

1. Lice (the singular is louse) are parasites that feed on human blood. They have little claws allowing them to cling to the hair shaft, which is why they are so hard to get rid of. To survive, they feed on human blood several times a day … what the?

CDC photo – Adult Louse


2. Life cycle
Adult – The grown-up louse is grey-brown in color and about the size of a sesame seed. The female can lay about six eggs a day. It has a lifespan of about 30 days, but will die within 48 hours without a human host.


CDC photo – Nit

Eggs(Nits) with a baby louse inside are usually attached to the hair shaft less 1/4 inch from the scalp. If eggs are found farther than 1/4 inch from the scalp, they are likely hatched. Eggs are usually yellow or white and about the size of a knot in a piece of thread. They are easily confused with dandruff or hair product.


CDC photo – Nymph

Nymph – Not that it matters for our purposes, but for completeness, these are the preteen lice. They are smaller than adults and can’t lay eggs. They are fully grown in 8-9 days.


3. Mode of Transmission - The most common way to get lice is direct head to head contact. You can get it by sharing hats, helmets, pillows, brushes, etc. but it is much more difficult to contract in this manner. Lice can’t fly and they can’t live without a human host. So, they prefer to jump head to head. They are not carried by animals. Our furry friends have their own set of parasites to contend with. Lice can survive submersion in a pool, but it seems they hold on tight. It is very unlikely to contract lice from swimming in the same water as someone who is contaminated. Infestation has absolutely nothing to do with hygiene.

4. Symptoms – Kids with lice can feel a tickling or a light movement through their hair. Since lice are most busy in the dark, contamination may interfere with sleeping. Itching, which is the result of the body’s reaction to the small bites. Finally, a child may have infected sores from the scratching. Rest assured though, while these buggers can turn your life upside down, what they can’t do is transmit disease.

5. Treatment – Ahhhh. Here is the big issue. Was it treated correctly? Was it treated adequately? Can I send them back to school? Do I have to treat everyone? Is my house now a bug-fest?
Here is the link to the CDC recommendations.
To summarize, the CDC recommends checking everyone in close contact, and treating those who have evidence of lice and anyone who shares a bed with the infected person. The CDC recommends the use of pediculicide (basically a pesticide for lice) and retreating based on results.

CDC photo – These are the claws they hold on with … why they are so hard to wash out.

Friends who have fought the fierce 2 mm beast, disagree. Common thinking here in the burbs is you need to pick every little bugger out strand by strand and then, do it again. If you can spare hundreds of dollars, you go to a professional lice picker who will do it for you. Everything from comb-outs with Pantene to suffocation with olive oil and shower caps is fair game.
Bottom line is this: You need to keep working at it until there is no evidence of a live bug or a nit close to scalp. Then, you can put your crazy away, resume normal life and stop the psychosomatic scratching.
Prevention:  The experts advise checking frequently, knowing what you are looking for, and teaching your kids to keep their heads, hats, brushes and helmets away from other kids’ heads, hats, brushes and helmets. We parents want more. I want the magic formula for preventing the bugs from landing on their heads in the first place. While I can’t find any proof they work, there are products made with ingredients that have a smell lice don’t like. (How do we know this? Does someone speak louse?) I use the Fairy Tales leave-in conditioner every morning on the girls, because if there is a chance it works, I am taking it. It isn’t cheap, but at about $14/bottle, it is less expensive than a lice-picker. When there is an actual lice outbreak at the school, I put garlic extract behind their ears. If it doesn’t stop the lice, at least it will keep away the vampires.

In elementary school, we would have a lice scare about once every three years. Sister Joan would call us into the hallway one by one and ineffectively rake through our hair with two rulers. Then, breathing a sigh of unembarrassed relief, we would walk confidently back to our desks to continue copying words off a blackboard. Every generation has its struggles. Now, lice is as common as a Kardashian family fight.

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