By Mary Ellen Ostrander
It’s that dreaded call from the school nurse: “Your child has lice.”
Guilt! Humiliation! And the knowledge that you will have to wash your entire house in hot water, shave your child’s head, and suffer ridicule for keeping an unsanitary home.
Not true! There are many misperceptions about head lice—what they are, how you can avoid an infestation, and the best way to get rid of them. The best way to deal with the situation is to be armed with the facts, as well as a good fine-tooth comb.
Lice are parasites and an infestation with head lice is called pediculosis. Lice, as well as the nits, or eggs, are tiny, each the size of a sesame seed. Although lice do not single out the heads they choose to attack, most vulnerable are children, ages three to twelve. Lice are equal opportunity pests; they do not discriminate based on one’s socioeconomic status. But once they settle in, they can make the host’s life miserable causing constant itching. Small children, in particular, may not know the cause of the itching.
Contrary to popular belief, lice do not fly or jump from head to head, but crawl. Direct contact is necessary for lice to travel from one place to another. It’s easy to see how one child infected with lice can quickly spread those tiny critters to all his schoolmates. In the winter, kids share hats and other clothing. Girls borrow combs or hair bows. And all that tumbling in the playground or in the gym brings children’s heads together.
Schools regularly check children for lice there and act quickly when they are detected. Children who have lice will be sent home and parents should reassure the child he has done nothing wrong. Your child will need to be rechecked by the school nurse before she can return to classes.
Your goal should be to rid your child of lice and nits, check other family members for infection, and clean bedding or objects in the home that may have become contaminated by the person who is infected. It may be that your child is the only one infected!
Manual removal is the safest and most effective treatment! Begin by washing your child’s hair (this will only clean the lice and not remove them) and use a conditioner to detangle her hair, before beginning lice removal. Some experts recommend conditioner (Pantene cream rinse, for example) mixed half and half with baking soda. You may then begin to comb the hair with a fine tooth lice comb to rid each hair shaft of the lice and nits. There’s no substitute for this method of carefully combing the hair, beginning at the scalp, even though it may be unpleasant and time-consuming.
Keep cleaning the comb on fresh paper toweling until you are sure all lice and nits have been removed. Repeat this process, until clean. If you or the child become tired, stop, cover the child’s head and resume after a good rest. To combat squirming and boredom, put on an entertaining DVD and make sure the seating is comfortable
Once you have de-loused your child, deal with the environment. Check other family members and treat only if needed. Throw out all brushes and combs. All bedding, including pillows and comforters, that the affected person’s head has come into contact with should be washed in hot water and dried on a very hot setting for at least 20 minutes. Some items (stuffed animals, for example) can be placed in tightly sealed plastic bags for two weeks. Since lice cannot live without a human host more than three days, this method can be very effective. The whole house does not have to be de loused, a fact that will lessen the physical, emotional and financial toll.
After you get the all-clear from the school nurse, continue to use the lice comb daily for two weeks, the life cycle of the lice. The best way to prevent future infestation is to comb your child’s hair with a lice comb once a week after washing and conditioning. (Keep those DVDs handy!) In addition, teach your child not to share combs, brushes, hats, scarves, hair ornaments, or other personal items.
As long as a student is in camp or school, there will be a nurse making the dreaded call. However, a prevention plan—weekly comb out with a lice comb and no sharing combs, brushes, and hats—might spare you and your child.
Mary Ellen Ostrander, R.N., is a school nurse in Brooklyn.