It’s an unfortunate fact of life. If your children go to school or camp, they will each almost certainly end up with at least one case of head lice during their childhood years. So, here is a great article about treatment options that I found in the New York Times:
Between six million and 12 million children a year become infected with lice, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The tiny bugs, no bigger than a sesame seed, spread easily among children ages 3 to 11, who are likely to come into close head-to-head contact with one another or share hats, headbands and the like.
Although head lice pose no health threat, they can be an expensive, creepy nuisance. Some estimates put the cost of treating lice at $1 billion a year. Many experts say inexpensive home treatments can be effective.
But more than a few parents will pay just about any price, often hundreds of dollars, to get the bugs out of their children’s — and in many cases, their own — hair.
“Some people are just not emotionally willing to deal with lice,” said Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an urban entomologist with the New York State Integrated Pest Management program at Cornell University.
I can understand. Not long ago, when an especially rampant outbreak of lice hit my son’s Brooklyn classroom, my husband, who wears his hair in a long, thick pony tail, and I couldn’t stop scratching our heads, didn’t sleep well and spent hours going through each others’ hair looking for creatures.
We were, in a word, obsessed. My son and husband both had lice. Mercifully, I escaped unscathed. Nonetheless, I missed a lot of work when my son missed three days of school.
Treating lice has become a full-scale industry in some cities. Hair salons dedicated solely to removing live lice and nits (the lice eggs) without poisons are booming in cities including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Boston.
Nitpickers in these establishments charge $50 to $300 a person. Some professionals will make house calls for an even higher fee of up to $500 a head. At that rate, you could be talking about thousands of dollars for an infested family of four. That doesn’t count the cost of time taken off from school and work.
“Except for the ick factor, there’s no real reason to plunk down a hundred dollars or more to treat a case of lice,” said Ms. Gangloff-Kaufmann
Investing a few dollars in a handful of drugstore products and a willingness to become your own household nitpicker will work just as well, if not better than the fancy salons.
In the view of Richard J. Pollack, an entomologist with the Harvard School of Public Health, “The people in these salons may not understand what they are doing.”
Here are some low-cost steps to take if lice have invaded the heads in your household.
REALITY CHECK: The note comes home from school or camp saying lice have been spotted. Don’t jump to the conclusion that your child is among the infested. Instead, comb or finger through your child’s hair thoroughly to look for evidence, parting the hair all the way to the scalp. What you think may be lice or nits could be specks of dirt or dandruff.
Live lice, which can be tan or grayish white, move quickly and can be hard to capture or even see. A magnifying glass can help. Look also for nits — tiny white or yellow eggs that stick like superglue to the hair shaft. If you have trouble removing the suspicious speck, it’s probably a nit. If it brushes right off, it’s far more likely to be dandruff or something else.
For more confirmation, compare what you’ve found to the photos at the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sent specimens from parents, school nurses, you name it, and it turns out not to be a louse,” Mr. Pollack said.
Go for the kill? If your child does have the real thing, it is tempting to run to the drugstore, buy the first lice-killing shampoo you can find (for $12 to $20), use it, and forget all about lice. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.
No pesticide gets rid of the nits. If you do use one of these products you need to reapply about 10 days later in case any eggs have hatched. You may even find you need a third application after another 10 days, because some nits survived the second application.
Even if you use the pesticide, it is still a good idea to follow with diligent combing and nitpicking each day until you are fairly sure the lice and eggs are gone.
More troubling, however, is the fact that in many cases lice have grown resistant to the active ingredients in these over-the-counter products. You may treat and see no results at all. When that happens, family physicians may provide a prescription for heavy-duty pesticides.
Lindane, for example, which is often used in agriculture, is still prescribed in many states for lice.
Although many experts believe exposure in small doses is perfectly safe, many parents worry about using these toxic substances on their children’s heads.
Ms. Gangloff-Kaufmann points out that the active ingredient in even over-the-counter lice treatments is the same class of compound that causes complaints when municipalities spray for mosquitoes. “I’m supposed to go ahead and put this on my child’s head?” asks Ms. Gangloff-Kaufmann.
She, for one, advocates nonchemical alternatives.
NATURAL ALTERNATIVES: If you’re uncomfortable using pesticides or if resistance is a problem, there is an abundance of natural remedies to choose from.
Parents, professional nitpickers, some family physicians and other experts have sworn by home remedies like applying mayonnaise, olive oil or conditioners to the hair overnight. The idea is to suffocate the live lice.
Another popular solution is the Cetaphil helmet.
In 2004 a study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that applying large amounts of a mild lotion (later revealed to be Cetaphil skin cleanser) to a child’s dry hair, applying heat from a hair dryer, leaving overnight, then washing and combing out the next morning was 95 percent effective in killing lice when applied once a week for three weeks. The dried cleanser, it is presumed, suffocates the lice.
During the outbreak in my son’s class, fliers went home in backpacks encouraging parents to use the Cetaphil treatment and stay away from pesticides, as the lice were determined to be a particularly resistant strain. The treatment was time-consuming, but I felt it worked. And, as someone who buys organic fruits and vegetables and would never spray Deet on my child no matter how bad the mosquitoes, I was happy to avoid the chemicals.
It’s important to remember that the natural treatments work in tandem with the regular combing and nitpicking needed to remove the nits and stop the life cycle of the lice. That may well be why they work, Ms. Gangloff-Kauffman said.
You can use any comb with tines that are very close together, she added. No need to buy the expensive steel combs advertised on many lice-fighting Web sites.
CALM DOWN: Sure, it is creepy to see the insects crawling around in your family’s hair. But when you consider that just about everyone goes through this, no matter how clean their houses or fancy their neighborhoods, you can focus your psychic energy on pest control.
And remember: No need to pay for exterminators to kill lice in your house. These aren’t bed bugs. A louse can live no longer than 36 hours without a host. So if it does migrate to bed or carpet, and doesn’t find another head to crawl onto, it will die soon.
And note: We’re talking about human heads. The lice that gorge on people’s blood cannot survive on dogs or cats, so there is no need to worry about your pets serving as hosts.
In the meantime, wash bed linens in hot water and dry at high heat for 20 minutes to kill any runaway lice. Throw stuffed animals, pillows and other textiles that have come in contact with the infected person’s head in the drier.
And while Ms. Gangloff-Kaufmann advises thoroughly vacuuming around the bed, you don’t have to go crazy. Lice that have strayed that far from a host aren’t long for this world.