Over the summer, I finished writing a personal essay on my experiences with head lice. As part of that process, I researched and read way too much about Pediculus humanus capitis, a parasite that feasts on human blood and causes incessant itching. I also wrote about times, which I thought were past, when lice descended on our house.
Well, the past has become present, and I’ve had to confront some fresh cases of infestation. This time, though, I feel no panic, because I see lice and I know what it takes to get rid of them. I’d like to share what I’ve learned with readers who may be confronting head lice on their children’s heads for the first time.
First, some information. The Directors of Health Promotion and Education, the association of state health departments and educators, publishes a readable fact sheet on head lice here. Note that it recommends over-the-counter and prescription pesticides as treatments, yet admits that “lice-killing medicines are becoming less effective.” I absolutely agree, based on my experience with the mainstream treatments, and I recommend not spending money on Nix® and other permethrin-based hair lotions. Doctors Craig N. and Craig D. Burkhart, public health specialists and lice experts, report that “the efficacy of permethrin has decreased over time with clinical failure rates over 50% reported in some communities.” (Click here to read their overview, as a PDF, on available lice treatments: burkhart.)
What works? Of the over-the-counter pesticides, home remedies (olive oil, vinegar), and homeopathic potions, the only one that I’ll stand by is Licefreee!®, which is a gelled salt. It goes on goopy and sits on the head, covered with a shower cap, for at least an hour. I comb it out — yank, really — with the special stainless steel comb. Salt is a dessiccant and seems to severely weaken the lice, their nymphs (newborns), and nits (eggs). The action of the comb is the coup de grâce, dislodging them abruptly and permanently from their host.
After treating the child’s head, get her out of her clothes and put them all into a hot wash and dry. Take off your own shirt (a few flung lice are probably clinging to it) and throw that in, too. Wash sheets, pillowcases, and blankets. Forbid children to trade hats, wigs, fleece pullovers, and dress-up clothes.
Seven days later, repeat.
How long does one full treatment take? About three hours for treating shoulder length hair, and another couple of hours for laundering tainted clothes and bedding. There is no magical potion or special pill that will let you avoid this manual labor. (I’ve searched, fruitlessly, for it.)
A friend, partner, or spouse who is not handling the nit-picking can help by entertaining the child undergoing the treatment. Jimmy recently taught Grace how to play a mean game of chess while I stood above her head, combing out the gel and repeatedly checking and rinsing the comb.
If you feel overwhelmed by the problem and are considering hiring a professional to help you, look here for The National Nitpicker Directory. I haven’t resorted to this yet, but if lice return to our house during the school year, and I have a stack of papers to grade or a deadline to meet, I just might call The Nit-Picker, or someone like her.