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Photographed by Michelle Drewes

When Lice Attack: A No-Shame Guide

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano

Photography by Photographed by Michelle Drewes for Mother

Lice. The word itself might make you start itching your head. As gross as this condition may seem, if you’ve got kids, chances are it’s going to hit your household (and, in many cases, your head, too). Even before lice attacks, if you’ve got school-aged kids, it’s helpful to know the ins and outs of this common annoyance. Luckily, we’ve got the 4-1-1 on lice below. If you have your own tried-and-true recommendations for treatment, please share in the comments—we’re in this together, people!

Diagnosing Lice: If you notice your child itching his or her head more than usual—especially if your child’s school has sent out an alert that another student has/had lice—you should check their head ASAP. (Also, note that not all children start itching, so, if lice has hit your child’s class, you should check your kid’s head, as well). When looking at your child’s head, you probably won’t see live lice crawling around. Instead, it’s more common to see “nits” or eggs, which will appear as tiny white-ish specs. “Nits are small white, opaque, or tan specks that adhere tightly to the hair shaft,” explains Nurse Judy Kivowitz of Noe Valley Pediatrics in San Francisco. “If you flick something and it floats away, it may just be dandruff. The nits are usually close to the scalp. If they are further up the hair shaft, likely they have been around awhile undetected.” Note that even if the presence of lice or eggs isn’t apparent at first glance, if you’re suspicious of lice, it still might make sense to do a simple treatment in order to prevent spreading of an undetected infestation. If you do detect lice, tell your school immediately.

Lice Facts: According to Kivowitz, “once a person gets head lice, the mature or adult head lice can lay up to 10 eggs or nits each day. These nits, or lice eggs, hatch in about 7 to 12 days. Baby lice or nymphs are about the size of a pinhead when they hatch, and quickly mature into adult lice in about 9 to 12 days. Lice don’t like light and they move very quickly, therefore the diagnosis is often made by finding the nits. One site claims that the average speed of a louse is 3.75 inches per minute. This is equivalent to 18.75 feet in one hour, and approximately 450 feet per day. This is over the length of one football field!” Because young children play with their heads close together and often touching, lice spreads fast in preschool and grade school. We’ve also heard one local “hair fairy” (a professional lice-picker) claim that if a child has lice, there is an 80% chance that the mother in the family also has it. Whereas the father’s chances are something like 20%-30%. Most lice is spread through head-to-head contact. Less likely methods of transfer include wearing clothing (that touches ones hair), or using sheets, a sleeping bag, brushes/combs, towels, pillows, carpet, or stuffed animal worn/used by an infested person. Lice are unable to jump, fly, or swim. They are not a sign of uncleanliness, and actually thrive better in clean hair.

Inspecting Your Child: Sit your child in front of their favorite show, get a spray bottle of water, some conditioner, and the finest tooth comb you can find in your home. If you have time, buy this special nit-picker comb. It’s a bit pricey (watch out for “fake,” cheaper versions), but it is worth it. Wet your child’s hair, add some conditioner or the oils mentioned below, and methodically comb through each section of their hair, paying special attention to the nape of the neck, crown, and behind the ears. Comb the hair from scalp to tip. Have a bowl of water and a roll of white paper towel on hand. Clear out the comb on the paper towel (it’s often more easy to see lice and nits this way) and clear out the tooths of the comb in the water after each or every other comb through. Yes, this is a time-consuming process! We know some parents who strap a headlamp on in order to really get in there. Others also have a magnify glass nearby, as both nits and lice are super tiny and hard to detect by the naked eye. This is a similar comb-out process that a “hair fairy” (someone who has a business based on combing through a child’s hair to clear it of lice) will do, for upwards of $100 an hour. While they are “experts” at finding and clearing lice, if you’re able to do it yourself at home or catch/comb it out early, you can save yourself some hard-earned cash.

Super Lice: When you had lice as a kid (didn’t we all), the protocol seemed pretty simple. You bought an over-the-counter medication, your parents slathered it all over your head, and you bagged all of your stuffed animals and other soft stuff in big garbage bags for a few days. Unfortunately, many of today’s lice have become resistant to common treatments (like Nix). “It feels like a waste of time to even bother with the Nix,” says Kivowitz in her post on super lice. “If you do opt to tackle the treatment yourself, I think that your easiest option is Sklice. Sklice is a lice treatment that has been on the market for several years. The key factor is that the super lice are not resistant to Sklice yet. This treatment is available only with a prescription. Sklice is fairly non-toxic. It is the only FDA approved drug that contains Ivermectin. Ivermectin has been used as an oral medication to treat river blindness in millions of patients. To treat lice, it is applied topically and left on for ten minutes. It is approved down to 6 months of age. The cost will vary depending on your insurance plan. Sklice directions claim that you don’t need to do any nit combing after the treatment. One tube/one ten minute treatment. Even folks with lots of hair just need to use the one tube.”

Treatment: There are a variety of ways to treat lice. Some parents will get the prescription for Sklice, mentioned above. Other parents will immediately find a local “hair fairy” or nit-picker to do the comb-out job for them. Other more budget-minded parents might opt to do the job themselves, with an over-the-counter or prescription shampoo option and/or methodically picking the nits and lice out themselves with a special comb. Several mothers we know also swear by adding tea tree oil, neem oil, and lavender drops to the comb-through process (Hair Fairies even sells a spray with this lice-repelling combination). Just make sure your child is not allergic to any of the oils above.

Cleaning Your Home: For the first two days after treatment, wash your sheets and pillow cases, towels, recently worn clothing, hats, jackets, and anything else that might have come into contact with your child’s head. “Items that can not be washed should be dry cleaned, put in a hot dryer for at least 30 minutes or placed in a ziplock bag in the freezer for 24 hours. Sealing items in an airtight bag for several weeks is also a common recommendation, but may not be reliable,” says Kivowitz. “Combs and brushes should be cleaned by soaking in hot water (about 130°F) for 10 minutes. All rooms and furniture, including car seats, should be vacuumed.” Using an essential oil spray (as mentioned above) on furniture and other things you can’t wash can also be a solution.

Preventing Lice In The Long Term: If your child has long hair, get into the habit of putting it in a tight bun or braid (not just a ponytail) when sending them off to school or other potentially lice-y situations. The shorter your kid’s hair is, the less likely they’ll get lice (and the easier it’ll be to spot and treat it). Make fine-tooth combing sessions (as detailed above) a part of your regular routine, using a special nit-picking comb if available. Several moms we know advise the following—Add tea tree oil drops to your child’s normal shampoo and condition, and treat your child’s hair with coconut oil from time to time; Add eucalyptus oil to your wool dryer balls, to help prevent lice on your children’s clothing; Spray a lice-fighting essential oils mix (tea tree oil, lavender, neem, rosemary) or add a drop of lavender oil on your children’s hair, clothing, backpacks, jackets, and hats regularly—on anything that touches their shoulders and up. The last important tip in not spreading lice is telling other parents about your children’s condition ASAP so that they can check their children and help halt it from spreading further. There should be no shame in this completely common issue.

For more resources on lice, check out these links: Head Lice Facts 101: Do’s and Don’ts, Super Lice, and Head Lice: What Parents Need To Know.

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