Bedbugs have stolen the media thunder from boring, old head lice. But for the elementary school crowd, lice are alive and well and still wreaking havoc in hair — at least in Seattle, where I live. This summer’s American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that schools allow even children with active lice infestations to attend hasn’t helped matters.
Sure, it sounds nice and equitable — the policy states that “no healthy child should be excluded from or allowed to miss school time because of head lice” — but in reality, it means that lice are being passed from child to child and beyond, as I unfortunately found out first-hand yesterday. (More on Time.com: Report: Head Lice Is No Reason to Keep Kids Out of School)
I went through 12 years of public school in North Carolina without getting lice. But yesterday, my kindergartener, Shira, woke up complaining that her head itched. I hauled her into the bathroom and peered into her mop of honeyed curls. Sure enough, she had a few pets. Completely grossed out, I ran across the street for how-to advice from the neighbors, whose daughter – one of Shira’s best friends — had lice during summer vacation.
Since school started, we’ve been informed multiple times that various kids in Shira’s class and in her older brother’s second-grade class have lice. I was sure it was only a matter of time until those little bugs caught up with us — and now they had.
Before you jump to conclusions about my housekeeping skills — I’m pretty compulsive when it comes to cleaning, honest! — I was reassured that, in a weird way, having lice means you emphasize hygiene; lice apparently prefer clean hair. But that was little consolation when I learned that Shira’s brother and sister — whom I’d pulled out of school to get checked, since siblings are prime breeding grounds for lice — and yours truly were also infested. (Dad escaped, as I learned 9 of 10 dads do in these cases.)
“It means you hug your children and your children are friendly,” says Janae Nelson, a professional nit-picker at Lice Knowing You, a Seattle-area business that promises to leave your hair 100% free of lice and nits, the eggs that lice lay. I do hug my kids a lot, and yes, they are pretty friendly people. But still. Yuck. (More on Time.com: Are We Oversnacking Our Kids?)
Lice Knowing You is not cheap — $95 an hour, with the average head requiring 1-1/2 to 2 hours. From stories I’ve heard from friends who’ve spent weeks combing and applying potions and combing some more, lice can be difficult houseguests to oust. An initial line of defense relies on drug-store insecticide remedies like Rid or Nix, which sometimes don’t wind up killing the lice because the bugs have built up resistance. Call me crazy, but I’m not a big fan of pouring toxic chemicals near my kids’ brains. Knowing that four of the five members of my family were infested convinced me that this was too big of a job for me to handle at home. Learning that a single nit can hatch half a dozen nymphs, who then repeat the process all over again, reinforced that suspicion.
“There are many products out there, but nothing replaces the fact that what works is 100% removal,” says Nancy Gordon, a lawyer by training who started Lice Knowing You in 2007 after she found herself offering delousing advice to friends (she’d successfully rid her 7-year-old daughter of it in 12 hours, which has got to be a world record). (More on Time.com: (Herbs and Spices Instead of Chemical Pesticides?)
Inside the yellow-painted “LKY Salon,” the atmosphere was downright festive, with mini cupcakes for the kids and a lice-free playroom where they could read, hang out or play the Wii while they waited between treatment stages. The place was packed, with the half dozen technicians busy for the nearly four hours it took to delouse our clan.
To start, the head lice specialists sprayed a vegetable enzyme on our hair to break down the glue that helps the nits stick to strands of hair. A technician sprays “killing oil” — a blend of essential oils including neem and tea tree — then combs through the hair with a super-fine-toothed comb appropriately dubbed the “Terminator.” A different technician repeats the process, combing in different directions, then a third comes behind her to serve as yet another pair of eyes. It’s not for the impatient at heart; getting a comb-out kind of hurts and took each of us about two hours. I can only imagine how long it would have taken us at home, where the kids inevitably would have whined about me pulling their hair. (More on Time.com: DIY Files: How to Build Your Own Bedbug Detector)
Lice can live away from a human head for up to 72 hours, but once the bugs have been off the host for more than 12 hours, they’re hungry and nowhere near as potent as they once were. “Even if that bug got back on your head, it will not do any damage,” according to a “cheat sheet” Lice Knowing You gave me to take home. Why is that significant?
Because the advice you’ll find on the Internet and from more than a few doctors to bag blankets, towels, stuffed animals and clothing for two weeks and wash bedding nightly is overkill. Here’s what you need to do, according to Lice Knowing You, once you’ve got all the live lice and nits out:
-Wash clothing and bedding in hot water; quickly iron the mattress if the infestation was severe.
-Put stuffed animals or special blankies that can’t be washed in the dryer for 40 minutes, or bag them and stick them in the freezer for 12 hours. Do the same with other things that aren’t dryer-friendly, like hats, bike helmets, brushes and hair accessories.
-Vacuum furniture, including car seats.
In the end, my kids missed nearly a full day of school. I would have felt like the worst mom on the block had I kept them in class, knowing they may have had lice. There was a minor educational component in that they got a science lesson on the life cycle of a louse. Plus, it was priceless to pick up my 7-year-old son from school and hear my 3-year-old daughter greet him with a chirpy, “Lice to meet you!”