"Your son has lice."
Without missing a beat, I say, "Oh, no. I’m sure you are mistaken. He has a very dry scalp and we are treating his dandruff problem."
"No, we really think he has lice. A couple other kids have gone home with it, too."
Suddenly, my head starts itching feverishly and I want nothing more than to have an instant out-of-body experience.
"Well, I guess I’ll take him to the doctor’s office to confirm."
"Great. He’ll be waiting for you in the nurse’s office with all of his belongings."
Translation: Your son has disgusting bugs crawling all over his head and we don’t want him or his stuff touching us or our stuff.
The next 40 hours are a blur. What I remember is that this was the first time I didn’t have to sit in the waiting room for the doctor to see us. In fact, I’m pretty sure that once they put my son, my 11-month-old daughter and me into the treatment room, some type of hermetic seal was placed around the door.
Maybe I’m being overly dramatic. But I will take that liberty, since my son was generous enough to share his condition with his baby sister and me.
Either way, I can say with certainty that while lice are really not a health concern, they still remain the most bothersome, unnerving, non-life-threatening things a family can deal with. For me, it entailed two panic-stricken phone calls for help (God bless my mother for coming over and my husband for coming home from work), exactly 43 loads of laundry, $200 worth of dry cleaning bills, $70 worth of lice-exterminating products and countless Ziploc bags to contain the picked nits.
But my purpose is not to gross you out—not entirely, anyway. Rather, it is to empower you to meet these critters head on—pun intended—should you ever get news there’s an unauthorized party in your hair.
1. Don’t panic. OK. You will panic. But just remember to take several deep breaths and remind yourself that this is not life threatening. It can, and will, be conquered.
2. Focus on the problem at hand. Resign yourself to the fact that for at least the next 24 to 48 hours you will do nothing but address the lice issue. The more attention you give the problem immediately, the better your chances of clearing everything out.
3. Get professional help. Consult with your family doctor or pediatrician to determine the best treatment plan, suggests Dr. Josie Tenore, who has a family practice at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare. You should also ask what to do about family members who have not yet, to your knowledge, been invaded. My approach was to treat the entire family. But the store-bought stuff is toxic, and may not be safe nor worth the money.
"They contain powerful chemicals that may not be suitable for all children or adults," Tenore says. And the reality is that these little guys keep meeting these chemicals and morphing, so special soaps and chemicals may not even work. A recent study in the British Medical Journal concluded that using conditioner and taking a fine-tooth comb to wet hair is often more effective than chemicals. Just be prepared to be picky—literally.
4. Clean everything. And I mean everything. Wash whatever you can in the hottest water and dry it on the hottest dryer setting. Anything that cannot be washed needs to be dry cleaned. All things that cannot be washed or dry cleaned, such as carpet, furniture and car seats, must be vacuumed and may need to be treated with a lice-killing spray.
5. Be diligent. Check for nits every day—twice a day—for at least 14 days from the time you receive the news. It takes up to 10 days for an egg to hatch, and there is no guarantee that lice shampoo will kill everything. So you MUST carefully and methodically check and comb out the hair.
6. Call the school. Make sure that while you are working hard on your end to beat the problem, the school is doing what it can to clean the classroom and educate other parents on how to check for and treat lice.
Debby Morris, a school nurse at Westmoor Elementary in Northbrook, believes that schools should work as partners with parents to snuff out any lice outbreaks. "Every year we have a few cases of head lice and we typically will then screen the entire class," she says. "We educate the parent on what to look for with emphasis on nit removal. In this case, it’s good to be a nit-picker."
Morris says controlling head lice also requires notifying anyone who may have been exposed. "Timely reporting of new cases will keep the problem from spreading and ping-ponging around the classroom," she says. "Early detection and regular inspection are our mottoes."
7. Bag it. All stuffed animals, toys and other such things that can’t be washed in hot water need to be placed in sealed plastic bags for at least two weeks. This way any little critters that have taken up residence will die and cannot re-infest the family. After two weeks, take out the items and shake or rub them clean.
8. Educate yourself. Lice are nondiscriminating creatures that have existed for thousands of years. They have nothing to do with hygiene—they are parasites that live off human blood harvested through the scalp. They can only crawl (they’re quick, I might add) and are spread through direct contact.
"They do not leap over tall buildings in a single bound," says Tenore. "Although it is smart to take simple precautions during a lice outbreak, there is no reason to avoid or discriminate against those who have had the misfortune of getting lice."
9. Educate your family. Tell your children the golden rule of lice prevention: Do not share hats, brushes, dress-up clothes, hair clips or anything else that could transfer lice from one head to another.
10. Celebrate when it’s all over. If the school is lice free and your family is clear for at least two weeks, chances are you have conquered the invasion. Take comfort in knowing that you have survived and that the lice have moved on to some other poor, unsuspecting person. It’s time to move on with your lives.
(You can stop scratching your head now—I promise you cannot catch lice from reading this article.)
Mia Tennenbaum is a parent coach, educator and freelance writer with a private practice in Northbrook. She can be reached through her Web site at www.MiaSharon.com.