As a parent, it’s never fun to get that letter home that head lice has been found in your child’s classroom, or possibly on your child’s head. Perennially, those letters do arrive. It’s time for parents to pull out the comb, turn on the bright lights, and start checking for nits and critters.
“What drives me crazy is that there is no pattern to head lice,” said nurse Joy VanVlack of the Duzine Elementary School in New Paltz. “They can appear the first day of school, after Christmas break, the fall, the spring ….”
The school had the worst breakout ever her first year on the job, 19 years ago. “It was right before Thanksgiving break and I checked the entire school and sent 72 kids home in one day,” VanVlack said. “And I was picking teachers’ hair, the principal’s hair. It was so bad that I had to make the kids put their winter jackets in plastic bags.”
Head lice get a bad rap, because, well, there’s just something creepy about bugs crawling around your head and sucking your blood, which is what they do. “I’m telling you, when the world ends, the only thing left will be cockroaches and head lice!” said VanVlack, who has a collection of them in her office taped to a card to show children and parents what the adult lice look like as well as the eggs they lay, which then stick on the hair shaft.
These blood-sucking lice have been around for millions of years, with dead lice being found on Egyptian mummies, Incan princes, and North American Indian remains. While they’ve become something for school nurses and parents to dread, they’ve had their glory days. In ancient Mexico they were offered by Aztecs to Montezuma. In northern Siberia a woman threw lice at her man as a sign of affection. In Tonga, kids eat their parents’ head lice as a sign of respect. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, is it not?
While some cultures might show more reverence for the lowly louse, others proliferate stigmas about head lice feeding off and being spread by poor, dirty, unwashed heads. Yet experts say that there is no socioeconomic bias when it comes to lice.
“Head lice do not distinguish between poor people or rich people, clean heads or dirty heads,” said Dr. Steve Weinman of First Care in Highland. “They’re spread by contact. Unless you have no human contact, then you’re just as likely to get head lice as anyone else.”
“Actually, head lice love a clean head because they can really dig in,” said VanVlack. “And no matter how many times you tell kids not to share things, they’re kids, they do. Baseball season kills me because they all share that batting helmet!”
Detection of head lice consists of seeing the sesame-seed-sized bugs crawling around in human hair or find tiny, cream-colored nits stuck to the hair shaft. This can be done by using the classic fine-toothed comb. “I check the entire school’s head at the beginning of the year, “ said VanVlack. “And once I discover a case of head lice, I check the entire class. If it’s in multiple classes…well, then we have a problem, but it’s a problem that can be treated. It just takes educating people on how to treat it, and stop it from spreading.”
Itchy heads are the most common sign of head lice. Red spots form where the louse bit the victim and sucked his or her blood. Interrupted sleep is common because lice are most active during the night.
“I remember a breakout when I was a kid in the middle school and everyone freaked out,” recalled Dr. Weinman. “But it can be easily treated with insecticide shampoos that you apply, leave on for ten minutes, wash out, and then repeat seven days later. It spreads mostly in families because before it’s detected one person lies on a pillow or a couch and then their siblings do or parents do.”
While treatments do exist, they’re exhausting. Lice procreate quickly, walk from head to head and bed to bed, and can survive for eight hours under water because they “breathe through their butts. Just like tics,” said VanVlack. “People think they can drown them in a shower or bath, but they can’t. You have to apply the treatment, check your entire family, keep checking them, apply it again and wash and clean everything.”
She suggests washing all bedding, pillow cases, clothes, bleaching hairbrushes and combs, changing vacuum bags, and putting stuffed animals into plastic bags and leaving them air-tight for two weeks.
Treatments include insecticide shampoos and creams like Clear or Nix or Perethrin, all found at local pharmacies. For severe cases, another treatment recommended is Bactrium, taken orally and commonly used to treat urinary-tract or ear infections.
There are home-grown remedies like leaving mayonnaise or olive oil on the infected head overnight hopefully to smother the louse. “I don’t like the mayonnaise treatment because I’m not sure it works, and secondly, your kid smells like mayonnaise. Talk about stigmas,” said VanVlack.
The most important thing in VanVlack’s mind is to make the kids feel comfortable. “Laugh about it, joke about it, let them know they didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “Lice happen. I’m telling you, they will outlive us all.” ++
For information on treatment or studies, log onto the not-for-profit lousology site www.headlice.org