I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t start scratching their head as soon as they hear the word lice. No one wants them. No one wants their kids to get them. And yet contracting lice is pretty much a fact of life.
If you’ve managed to avoid the suffering so far, congratulate yourself. You are one of the lucky few. The rest of us shiver at the thought, remembering the brutal combing, the constant shampooing, the never-ending laundry. We don’t want to go through it again.
On top of it all, if these minute blood-suckers nestle into your scalp, it feels like you can’t tell anyone lest they think you live in squalor, bathing your children once a month while flies and centipedes make a cozy home of your kitchen counter.
The stigma of lice makes it hard to get to the truth of the matter. Many (untrue) myths remain. The real truth is this: If you or your kids get lice, it doesn’t mean you are a negligent parent devoid of basic personal hygiene. It means you’re human.
Recently, my daughter and I both lived through a lice infestation (she loves me so much she wanted to share it with me), and this time I sought help from professionals – the rather saintly employees of the local Lice Lounge (yes, it’s a thing).
I wanted to figure out the root cause (pun intended) of lice, and the Lice Lounge, along with research provided by the Nebraska Extension in Lancaster County, proceeded to debunk the most common myths of the nasty little pest.
Myth #1: If you get lice, you must be dirty.
This may be hard to believe, but Myth #1 is 100 percent false. In fact, lice are especially attracted to long, luxurious clean hair. It gives their vile little legs something to cling to. Plus, once on the head, they propagate quickly.
According to the Nebraska extension program, “The female louse lays 8-10 eggs per day, which hatch in seven days and mature to an adult in another seven days…they live for approximately 30 days.”
So you aren’t a terrible parent if you didn’t notice it or nip it in the bud right away. Shampoo and brushing won’t kill them, and they multiply like Gremlins even on the most pristine scalp.
Myth #2: Fumigate your house.
My siblings and I had lice a time or two when we were kids, and I still remember my frantic mom putting every last blanket and stuffed animal in supersize trash bags and sequestering them in the basement for two weeks. Pillows had to be washed, comforters dry cleaned, and brushes thrown away. Thankfully, we now know these measures are overkill.
While it’s important (especially for your peace of mind) to wash items that come in contact with the lice-head, remember this: Lice can only live off their host (i.e. your sweet cherub’s head) for 24 hours. Also, only two percent of lice cases are spread through brushes and pillows, etc. A whopping 98 percent of cases are spread through direct head-to-head contact – think selfies, hugs, sharing a pillow during nap time.
The ladies at the Lice Lounge have less exhausting advice for housecleaning during an infestation:
- Wash bedding.
- Treat brushes and combs by putting them in the freezer for two hours.
- Throw hats, coats, stuffed animals, etc., in the dyer for 30 minutes (extreme prolonged heat and cold kills the little shits).
- Vacuum carpets.
Yes, it still adds up to exhausting work, but it beats throwing everything out and/or scalding everything in the closet and scrubbing everything within reach.
The Nebraska Extension reminds us that “lice do not live or breed on inanimate objects or other animals besides human heads. Even items in contact with head lice, such as clothes, hats, headphones, blankets, rugs, etc. will have a low risk of transmitting head lice after 24 to 48 hours of non-use.”
Myth #3: Home remedies like mayonnaise are effective.
All-natural healing remedies have never been hotter, and essential oils are taking over the world, but here’s the thing: Lice are tough little suckers, and you’ll need more than smearing mayo or peppermint oil on your kid’s head to kill every last one. What’s worse is that the lice-fighting chemicals available at the drugstore may no longer eliminate it.
A study in the 2014 March issue of the Journal of Medical Entomology found that 99 percent of the head lice collected by school nurses were genetically resistant to permethrin (the active ingredient in over-the-counter products like Nix).
What’s an itching, scratching, exasperated mom to do? One of the only tried-and-true methods of eradicating head lice is the combing method, in which every last egg (nit) and live louse is manually combed out of the hair with a fine-toothed metal comb. You can tackle that endeavor yourself, or you can pay a local lice lounge (which are popping up around the country) to help.
If you do use a shampoo insecticide product from the drugstore, which are FDA-approved and claim to be effective if used correctly, you will likely need to use it at least twice over a period of time because most of those only kill live lice, not the eggs.
Myth #4: It’s your dog’s fault.
Stop giving Fido dirty looks. Head lice are persnickety insects that only live on human heads. There’s no need to treat your pets or worry that they are the culprits.
Myth #5: There’s nothing you can do to prevent it.
The ladies at the Lice Lounge offer a few kernels of wisdom to avoid future encounters. One simple tip is to keep long hair pulled back. Braids and buns are especially effective styles because they tie back all of the hair and don’t give lice the chance to grab on as easily.
Another tip (here’s where you can use those oils!): Lice don’t like the smell of mint. Applying a mint-based spray and/or using mint-scented shampoo and conditioner can help provide a layer of protection. Though please note, the peppermint stuff is merely preventative and will not kill lice once you have it.
Finally, be vigilant. Comb all the heads in your household with a fine-toothed metal lice comb once a week for two to five minutes. Watch for signs of head lice, such as red marks on the back of the neck, swollen lymph nodes, and (of course) itchy scalp. This routine helps with early detection and helps stop it from escalating or spreading.
Itching yet? Me, too. Armed with these facts and a trusty lice comb (and far fewer selfies with friends), may the force be with us!