Did you know that 3 percent of the kids at most schools have lice at any given time? And that's when there isn't a major outbreak.
Lice is a nationwide epidemic that gets a little bit worse every year. Even though most families don't want to talk about this unpleasant topic, it is time to face the facts when it comes to these creepy crawlers trying to make their home on your child's (or even worse, your) head.
While there is no way to completely protect your family against lice, you can take some common-sense steps to educate yourself and be proactive against the problem.
"Trying to avoid head lice is like trying to avoid catching the common cold," says Maria Botham, president of Hair Fairies, a full-service, clinical salon devoted to lice removal. "My kids are 6 and 8 years old and they could be running around with lice right now and I wouldn't know it. This problem can quickly get out of hand."
The most important thing parents can do is check their child's head regularly, because early detection is key.
"Even if you don't have any information that there is an outbreak at school or that your child has had contact with someone who has lice, you should check your child's head twice a month at a minimum," she says.
Once the lice are discovered, many people spend a ton of time cleaning their home and discarding toys, clothes and other items. While Botham does advise daily washings of the clothing, bedding, brushes and hair accessories used during head lice infestation, she also advises parents to spend the most time cleaning their child's head.
"I don't think that anyone can ever truly be prepared for lice. I know this from both a personal and professional perspective because my daughter has had lice twice this year," says Erin Taback, a pediatrician with Oak Park Pediatrics. She urges parents to remember that lice isn't hazardous to your family's health, "it is just a huge nuisance."
This problem generally originates in schools, Taback says, so she advises parents to keep informed about what is going on in their communities.
She says basic precautionary steps are important: Don't share hats or hairbrushes and frequently wash items like winter hats, scarves and coats that are worn to school.
Parents have a variety of product and treatment options when it comes to dealing with lice.
"There are the chemical products, prescription-strength options and also herbal or natural options," says Taback. The major difference is that the herbal-based products kill live lice, but not nits.
"Parents choosing non-toxic treatments need to understand that the nits need to be manually removed," she says.
She warns that lice are becoming more and more resistant to the chemical treatments on the market. "The staple of the treatment is really just the literal 'nitpicking,'" says Taback.
Botham also recommends the use of tea tree oil-based products.
"Use these products everyday if you have lice and I also recommend using them as a preventative measure if you know there is an outbreak in your community," she says.
Families who have dealt with lice also know there is more to the experience than just the diagnosis and treatment.
Angela Hunsicker and her daughter both got lice last summer after her daughter came into contact with it at summer camp. It interfered with her family's ability to enjoy the end of their summer, she says.
"I really think that this is the worst non-serious illness out there. We couldn't have any play dates or go to the pool. It was just a really hard time for us to be cooped up at home, not having contact with anyone else," she says.
Having been through the experience, Hunsicker also recognizes there are limits to what families can do to protect themselves against lice.
"My advice is to do what you can do to be proactive against it, but you can't not send them to school or camp," she says.
"The good news is that you can get rid of it. You just have to be really diligent."
Caitlin Murray Giles is a full-time mother of three and part-time freelance writer living in Wicker Park.
See more of Caitlin's stories here.