terminatorThe first time that our family was invaded by lice, I discovered it after finishing our cross country road trip to see my in-laws. My kid kept complaining about an itchy head, but kids complain about EVERYTHING when they’re in a car for 8 hours a day, so it didn’t stop me from letting them try on every single cowboy hat across the southwest prairie. (Sorry about that, Oklahoma.)

There is nothing that sends me over the edge faster and with more force than lice. After that particular trip, when I had figured out that I had it too (there might have been some crying in a shower), I made my husband (Think: advertising executive, not hair stylist) cut my hair. Hearing somewhere that lice hate processed hair, I then dyed it purple. Picture it: I was a crying, neurotic 41 year old woman that looked like she had gone to the Hair School for the Blind for a makeover. Now, three years and several more lice invasions later, you can see why telling my lice story to anyone who will listen is not such an insane concept.

Our daughter Merry (grade 3) will receive her 6th lice treatment of this school year today. (Sounds like quite the accomplishment—like getting a black belt or 1st chair in the orchestra—but we Cooks are achievers of a different nature.) After finding lice on her on last week, I had a new nervous breakdown of a supernatural kind. In addition to treating us all AGAIN, and washing everything that was ever touched by human hands in my house AGAIN, and sending Mr. Snuggles and friends to go live in solitary confinement in the garage with the termites and black widows AGAIN, and then texting every girl mom that I had a phone number for in the 3rd grade AGAIN… I then made some phone calls and had some meetings. I have met with our principal and our school nurse. I spoke on the phone with the Director of Health Services for our school district, and the nurse for communicable diseases at the Department of Public Health. (Ok, so maybe I was a little more than just crazed. Perhaps neurotic to the point of mental illness might be more accurate. But a GOOD mental illness, right?)

Here is what I have learned…

WHAT ARE LICE:

how to get rid of head lice?Lice are insects that live in human hair (head, pubic region and… hold on to your lunch… even eyebrows) and are considered a transmittable parasite, but lice do not classify as a disease since they do not spread illness. A child can get an infection from scratching, but lice do not carry bacteria or viruses (like how ticks carry lyme disease) and are therefore not prioritized as dangerous by either the school district or the Dept. of Public Health. As I was told, “It is just the creep factor.”

Live juvenile and adult lice cannot live without food (human blood) for more than two days. If a live louse leaves the host, it will die in that time frame without food. 

Nits are the eggs of lice. A live adult can produce as many as 10 nits a day. Nits take one week to hatch. These nits are stuck with the equivalent of lice superglue to individual hair shafts. They are about the size of a strawberry seed, are wheat colored and are located on the shaft somewhat close to the scalp. Yes, they do look exactly like the pounds of sand already found in our children’s hair, but if you poke it with your finger or blow on it, it will not move. The only way to get a nit off of a hair is to scrape it between your fingernails, comb with the metal lice comb or use a special chemical. Truly gross.

Lice do not jump, run or fly (so I’m told, though I’m pretty sure no one is holding an Olympics of Lice) so the only way that they can get from one person to another is through contact. That’s right, all of that hugging, cuddling, sharing (brushes, hats, hair bands, helmets, pillows, stuffed animals, blankets, shirts, jackets, etc.) are how our children spread their love and bug infestation! (And don’t forget selfies!)

Lice can hold their breath for an insanely long period of time. They don’t care if your child spends hours in the ocean, they will find a way to make it work. You cannot drown lice. Period. They love clean hair, but they are bugs and not really all that choosy, so if you think that your little sand crab is safe, you are mistaken.

HOW TO FIND THE BUGGERS

Itching always seems to be the big indicator, but my niece had a full blown infestation and she never had one itch. If your kid isn’t scratching, they could just be numb in the head. (Totally kidding. Fairly sure your kid can feel things. You’ll quickly see when you use the lice comb!) However, if you have a kid who won’t leave his head alone… start looking.

Look for redness on the scalp in the hairline at the base of the neck and behind the ears. Again, some kids have eczema or bad dry scalp, so this might not be a definitive answer. And, if your kid does have a super dry scalp or eczema, they can still have lice. So sorry for that kid.

The best way I’ve found to see if your kid has lice is in the shower. Once they have showered and theoretically washed their hair with shampoo, pour in a TON of conditioner in and lather it generously about. Then take a comb with the smallest teeth possible (lice combs are best) and start combing out the conditioner. Start at the base of the neck and behind the ears. As globs of conditioner gather on the comb, spread them out onto a tissue or paper towel. Only the lice comb will produce nits, but a comb with small tines can generally pull out the live lice as they get stuck in the conditioner. And use your reading glasses! Live lice are about the size of sesame seeds. No one has arms long enough to see that.

Once you find them you must dispose of them carefully. Put the paper towels into a bag, tie it and dispose of it. Soak that comb in bleach and hot water (after you’re done using it on the kid, of course). And keep washing your hands. Lice are a live, moving target and the nits are a bomb waiting to go off in a week! This takes some special tactical maneuvers and even, yes, a bit of neurosis.

HOW TO GET RID OF THEM:

(Ok, so you are trying to hold down your last meal because you’ve found an insect walking around in your child’s hair. Breathe. It is going to be ok. Take a sip of something calming. I like to lock myself in the bathroom for a tick or two. Once you’ve called forth your strength and put on your Thunderwear, it is time to get to work.)

The Host: Sadly, your child’s world is about to rain down with everything a kid can’t stand—hygiene. Even sadder is that you must now treat everyone in the home. Don’t think so? I have a friend whose kids had lice treatments three times over the course of four months. They just couldn’t get rid of it. Then the mom figured out that SHE WAS THE ONE THAT KEPT GIVING EVERYONE LICE.

TREATMENTS THAT WORKED FOR ME:

DIY 

Cetaphil treatment – This treatment is exhausting but works and way less expensive in money, but high cost in time. You put Cetaphil in dry hair (combing out nits and lice as you go) and then blow the hair completely dry. This takes close to an hour on short hair. The idea is that the Cetaphil dries and shrink wraps the live lice suffocating them. This does not kill the nits, so you have to do the entire treatment over again in a week. And, you get to walk around with hair that looks like you’ve used salad dressing to wash it. Bonus.

Quit Nits – This is a homeopathic treatment that does not use harsh chemicals. You put the solution into dry hair and let it sit for 4-8 hours, then wash it out. The idea is that it dehydrates the critters. This treatment does claim to kill the nits. (I think this is true.) It also claims that no combing is necessary. (I think this is stupid.) You can get Quit Nits from Whole Foods and generally any other natural grocery store as well as the Internet. A kit costs around $17 and comes with a bottle of cream solution (one bottle will get you two treatments for short hair, one treatment for thick long hair), a plastic comb (doesn’t work) and a small bottle of preventative spray (maybe works). You should know that most places sell out quickly.

**UPDATE: Two VERY important things to note. I wrote this piece two years ago so pricing has changed. Today a complete Quit Nits lice kit costs $69.95 on Amazon. Second, after about the 9th treatment on Merry that year (there were 10 in all), I realized that Quit Nits no longer worked. Seems the lice strain at our school had evolved beyond. See “Lice Whisperers” paragraph below for the actual result producing effort.

Rid – This is the old school, buy it at Walgreen’s treatment. Rid has one of the best lice combs: red handle, metal teeth. The comb used to come with the kit, but I don’t think that it does anymore. The Rid solution goes into dry hair (see the pattern forming?) for 10 minutes, and as the box says “no longer”. (Of course, I was busy washing every sheet in the house so my girls may have had it on for a little longer… like half an hour. They seem normal enough now though, right?) You then rinse it out in the shower. It lists itself as a “shampoo and conditioner”. Shockingly good curl enhancer.

**THE TREATMENT I USE TODAY – OIL AND COMB

 combLice Comb – I cannot stress enough how important this comb is. If you were Luke Skywalker this would be your lightsaber. If you were Indiana Jones, this is your whip. 

The best and only surefire way to get rid of lice is to remove them personally with that comb. Yes, it takes hours. Yes, the comb hurts (especially on old lady hair), but it works and they are gone. Even after you treat the hair, there is no guarantee that you covered every single egg, every single bug with the treatment. If even only ONE egg or bug is still alive, you will have another infestation sometime around the end of next week. The only way to get rid of lice from a person completely is to comb and then comb again. 

My recommendation for the BEST is the Nit Free Terminator lice comb. It is stainless steel (yup, you can boil and bleach the bejesus out of it) and has tiny grooves in the super tight tines. Available on Amazon for $10.30 (not inc. shipping, 2017 prices.) 

Again, there are other metal lice combs that are out there (like the metal comb in the Rid kit), but this is the one that has worked best for me. A lot of the kits come with a small tined plastic comb. These can help you search the hair for live lice when you use conditioner, but don’t bother trying to clear the nits out. Useless.

Herbal Oil –  I now create my own proprietary blend of herbal oils after experiencing years of chemical testing. Don’t get me wrong, the chemicals can work (and I’d venture to guess more so in geographical locations that have cold seasons than in places like Southern California where all our critters are bionic), but if you’re ready to put in the time with that comb, this is the tried and true method. In addition to combing through the head meticulously, I wrap the head in a bandana and leave the oil on overnight. If the bugs can’t grab onto the hair, the eggs have no hope.

OIL: (A spray bottle works best.) Blend with almond oil any combination of the following: clove, rosemary, eucalyptus, frankincense, cedarwood, cinnamon. I like to make two different versions so my kids experience the illusion of choice.

METHOD – If you love to Zentangle, this might be your new jam. Prep your kid with the most engrossing, stay-in-your-seat activity you can find. This is NOT the time to make them do homework or read. This is the good side of digital devices.

You’ll Need: a bowl of water, paper towels, lice comb, lice oil, hair clips

Section off all the hair so that you’re only working in 1” sections. 

Spray the oil into the hair at the scalp for the first section only.

Insert the tines of the comb where the 1” section meets the scalp and draw the comb slowly out of the hair. Expect the comb to move jaggedly and catch on the hairs a bit because the tines are so tight. Buckle in for LOTS of shouting.

After you’ve pulled the comb through, dip it in water and then wipe across the paper towel. You are looking for adult lice (the biggest and easiest to see), juveniles (smaller) and nits (tiny strawberry seed-sized spots). 

Now comb through the same section from underneath. Do it again from the side. Do it again from the other side. Think of this as a “Lice Doe-See-Doe”. Do it all again until that comb comes out clean.

Take that method, do the entire head and kiss goodbye to the next two hours of your life.

Do this treatment again in 7-10 days if you want to guarantee the infected is absolutely clean.

CALLING IN BACK UP

The Lice Whisperers – (UPDATED VERSION) At the time of the writing of this doc, Merry was still infested. It actually took 10 treatments to rid our house of lice. The final treatment was professional help to the tune of $265, one hour of my child sobbing in a chair in front of a stranger and $35 for a good bottle of red wine for myself. These organizations are a franchise that hire contractors to come to your house and comb your kid’s hair out while you pretend you can’t hear the screaming from the other room. So fun. They use a ‘proprietary blend’ oil in the hair and the Terminator comb. They also recommend a return visit in 7-10 days to guarantee their work. 

TREATMENTS THAT DIDN’T WORK FOR ME:

Nix – Nix is another one of the buy-at-any-grocery-store toxic kits. This stuff is crap. My first clue was that you could put the solution onto damp hair. Warning. The second was that after washing it out (10 minutes later?) and combing through Merry’s hair there were still live lice walking around. If you find anything alive after a treatment IT DID NOT WORK. Of course at this point, she had already had enough toxicity on her head to melt crayons, so I couldn’t exactly make her sit through another treatment… which meant she and all of us went to bed knowing we still had lice… in the house… until the next day. That doesn’t screw with your sleep at all.

I have heard of many other treatments (the Vinegar/Oil Treatment, Something from Somewhere in Mexico Treatment) but I haven’t tried them. I’m not saying that there aren’t others that are effective out there, I’m sure there are. The good news is, that if this problem keeps up, we’ll get our chance to try all of them!

Speaking of which, here is the #1 way to get rid of lice at school. Ready? Really easy and extremely important…

Tell the school. What I learned from our principal, from the nurse, from Health Services and from Public Health is that because no one is telling the school that they have a confirmed case of lice, the school doesn’t realize that there is a problem and can’t deal with it. If the school doesn’t know, then parents don’t know and no one is looking for it. As soon as you find it, call your school nurse and tell him/her. Every school has a different policy on lice when it comes to when kids are allowed in school (A ‘no lice’ policy means a kid can return when no live lice are found in the hair. A ‘no nit’ policy means a kid can return when nothing is found in the hair.) and how many reported infestations it takes before a notice is sent home. Be clear and ask what your school’s policies are. If you don’t like them, work to change them. 

Tell everyone. I don’t mean call up your husband’s boss and set her ear on fire, but do send a lovely little note to everyone who’s house your kid visited in the last two weeks, the babysitter that snuggled on the couch with her, the mom of the kid that is her seat partner, the coach at the gymnastics facility… anyone who could help stop the spread of this infernal annoyance. Even the families of your child’s sibling friends. No one will think less of you and actually will most likely want to help you. You have no idea the amount of wine I’ve been offered when people find out we have lice.

Ok, so about now your kid is doused in some form of poison solution and eating up battery life on a digital device while waiting for the bugs to cook. Time to hit your house.

LICE REMOVAL IN THE HOME:

This is actually the part of lice removal that snaps the even-keeled, totally chill me into a raging psycho banshee from hell. It cannot be stated enough: Lice are a time bomb waiting to go off over and over again. In order to completely eradicate them, you must clean/dry/disinfect EVERYTHING.

The Bedding: All sheets, blankets, and comforters need to be washed in hot water and dried on high heat. When you take them off of the bed, fold them carefully and place them into a garbage bag for transport. (These little stinkers can’t fly, but they can fall. You lose a few live ones onto the carpet and your kid lays on their bedroom floor… boom. You’ve got lice again.) Pillows that can’t be washed can be thrown into the dryer on high heat for 40 minutes. And guess what? You have to do this to EVERY BED IN THE HOUSE. I like to do the big wash the first day, then just toss the child in quarantine’s bed things into the dryer on high every day for the next week.

The Toys: Mr. Snuggles has two choices: into the dryer on high for 40 minutes or into the garage in a plastic bag for two weeks. And all of his friends go with him. My girls love to keep mountains of stuffed animals on their beds. I cringe every time they get another one for the collection, because guess what—that fennec fox is awfully soft and cuddly when he comes home from the store, but one tour in the dryer and Foxy looks like she has the mange. Don’t let stuffed animals out of the house… don’t let other kids’ animals into the house. And those cute little ones hanging off of backpacks? Lice hand grenades.

The Carpets: Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum. Every day. Period. Once you vacuum, get rid of the bag. You can either dispose of it or you can spray inside with an insecticide—but I totally don’t recommend that because then you are just filtering toxic chemicals throughout the house every time you turn the thing on. Get those filthy buggers off of the floor.

The Furniture: Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum. The couch, the chairs, anything with fabric upholstery. If you can wash pillow covers, now is a great time to do so. If not, into the dryer with them. We’ve done this so much, I have the pattern from the inside of our dryer burned onto the surface of one of my couch cushions.

The Linens: Bath towels, bath mats, washcloths, hand towels, dish towels… toss all of it into the wash. Bath towel hanging on the wall next to the other towels? Wash them all. That towel that your infected kid just used after getting the treatment? Wash it. That hoodie that your infected kid just dropped onto the vacuumed couch… then walked off with and dropped into that clean basket of laundry you just folded? WASH IT. WASH AND VACUUM ALL OF IT AGAIN. 

(Incidentally, this is the part where my husband takes me by the arm and marches me into the bedroom, closes the door and speaks to me in hushed tones. All of my friends who’ve had lice get this little quiet talking to from their husbands. It will happen to you too. Welcome to our club. Just listen to what he says, nod in solemn agreement, then go disinfect his pillow when he isn’t looking.)

The Clothes and Accessories: Any article of clothing that your child has been wearing or anything that has been touched by something that he/she has been wearing needs to be washed and/or thrown into the dryer on high. (Think: hoodie hanging with the other coats on the coat rack—everything into the laundry). This includes (but is not limited to): jackets, pajamas, hats, scarves, backpacks, bandanas, headbands, hair ribbons, hair clips… the list is endless. I take a pillowcase and dump every hair accessory into it that could have possibly touched their head or touched something that touched their head and run it through the dryer. Lost an entire package of headbands that way. Try to remember that plastic melts at high heat.

Brushes and Combs: Anything you use to comb hair (yours and theirs) soak in boiling water and/or bleach. Before that lice comb touches another head in the house, bleach it and/or toss in boiling water and do it again in between each combing. (In my earlier days I was so wary of chemicals that I would boil water and pour it over the combs and brushes. Cracked my porcelain bathroom sink that way. Bleach works, just remember that it also corrodes. So I like to alternate between the two. And I use a metal bowl for the boiling treatments.)

The Car: If you have fabric upholstery (and yes, fabric on carseats most definitely counts) you are driving around in a lice mobile. Great news! If you live in cold weather, you’re probably safe and don’t need to do more than a quick vacuum of your seats. If like me your temperature rarely drops below 65 degrees, you’ve got some work to do. Vacuum everything and either wrap your newly treated kid’s head before getting back into the car or vacuum again tomorrow and the next day and the next day…. ad infinitum.

If your head isn’t spinning by now, you really aren’t taking this seriously enough. Sure you can get away with just treating your kid and washing a pillowcase or two, but sit with the idea for a moment that after taking those limited steps, that sometime later next week… right between the soccer tournament and the birthday party… you’re going to figure out that your kid still has lice… and so does his or her brother or sister. And so do you. Is it worth that risk?

KEEPING THEM OUT: 

Ok, so now your children are treated, you are treated, and maybe you’re still trying to convince your husband that he needs to be treated, but anyhow it is time to lock down your squeaky clean house (it never looked so good!) and try your hardest not to let them back in.

Here’s how:

Comb daily. Before this year, I rarely did lice checks on my kids. Then it hit school and just kept making the rounds through the classrooms and on my kids’ head. I started checking every week and am now going to do it daily. I’m sure that once the amounts of cases reported drops I can go back to once a week and maybe even fewer in the summer, but for now, the sooner you catch the problem, the easier it is to deal with. 

Vacuum daily. If you have carpets, you need to vacuum. And if you don’t have a vacuum, borrow one. (Incidentally, how do you have carpets and no vacuum?)

Preventative lice shampoo: Some people swear by the stuff. Since September my kids have been using a rosemary and tea tree oil shampoo. When Merry started bringing home lice, I upped my arsenal to Fairy Tales Lice Shampoo. She still gets lice. 

Preventative lice conditioning spray: For a while I was using a leave-in conditioning spray in their hair that I got from our natural food store. It sort of worked. While one kid had lice the other didn’t seem to have it so maybe that was why it didn’t spread… that time anyway. Once this year got really bad, I invested (oh it ain’t cheap!) in the Fairy Tales Lice Conditioning Spray and threatened my kids with making them drink it if they didn’t use it every day. They do. And they still get lice.

Everyone in the house gets their own hair brush: This also has the added benefit of you being able to check who actually is brushing their hair (brush with lots of hair) and who does not (other brush hidden under the bathroom sink behind the toilet bowl cleaner.)

Ponytails, Pigtails, Braids and Hats: If you have a sweet little girl with long blond hair (Hello California!) then now is the time to master that Elsa from Frozen hairstyle. Spray it down and then tie it up. Lice are less likely to enter into a locked down situation. If you have boys, and you are positive they don’t have lice, send them to school with a hat they won’t take off. The school nurse is very wary of hats and rightfully so. She is concerned that if your kid has lice, wears a hat and then removes hat or shares hat it is a spreading situation. True. But if your kid is lice-free then throw the equivalent of the Great Wall of China on their head.

Take a break from play dates and sleepovers: Totally sounds harsh and it kind of is, but your kid is a gift that keeps on giving, in all of the good ways and one very very bad way. Just until the kid is absolutely all clear (no nits or lice), how about avoiding play dates and sleepovers. What a great time for you to bond with your kid and to brush up on those Minecraft skills you’ve always wanted to master?

ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY DO NOT DO THIS:

Panic. You are not alone. Much like jury duty and termites, almost everyone has experienced this and if they haven’t then just wait. Lice does not mean you are a bad parent. Lice does not mean that you have dirty children. Lice happens. I’m surprised that hasn’t been made into a bumper sticker already.

Hide. Please, please, please do not hide the fact that your kid has lice. Call school and tell them. Call other parents and tell them. I have heard horror stories about people anonymously calling a school to tell them that their kid has lice but refusing to tell them who their kid is. That is so not helpful. We won’t lock you up in stocks we set up in the courtyard or mock you behind your back if your kid has lice. Promise. However if we DO find out that you hid the fact that your kid has lice, we will find you and we will be sure the punishment is swift, severe and appropriate. Like giving you bed bugs!

Blame. Clearly your kid got lice from someone else’s kid. And your kid most likely gave lice to another kid (and his sister and his brother and you, etc. etc.). When it comes to transmission this is no different than a cold or a stomach bug. You aren’t about to punch out the person that gave your kid a cold, so it is best to be equally as calm about this. And just think… their house is in as much chaos as yours is right now. The one truism of lice: We’re all in this together!

Punish Your Kid: Not their fault. Even if they tried on every hat at school, they really have no idea. After our first bout, my kids became so afraid of my wrath that THEY ACTUALLY LIED ABOUT NOT HAVING IT AGAIN. And to this day, as soon as Merry knows I’ve found lice, she slumps down into the shower and sobs because of how crazy I can be. Worst parent fail ever. Learn from my parenting mistakes. Make my insanity your Mother/Father-of-the-Year moment.

ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY DO THIS:

Laugh: Sounds insane, but this is your only saving grace. YouTube the South Park episode on lice. Call a girlfriend who’s been there/done that. There really is something magically surreal about this experience, so rather than let it bring you down, try to step aside and find the hilarity in the insane.

Let It Go: Fingers crossed you won’t get it again… but you might. Try not to obsess over who your kid is hanging out with, staring at them when they scratch their head, interrogating them about their seat partner. Yes, I’ve done all of these things and it doesn’t help. When asked what’s Mom’s signature saying, my kids respond, “Does your head itch?” not “I love you so much.” I know. Gross.

Best of luck. Know that you are in a special club now, and we’ve been waiting for you. Before you pick up that comb, give us a call. We’ve got some stories and a special etched wine glass just for you.

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