Almost 2 weeks ago, my family joined a club. The "We Had Lice" club. We were recruited, unwillingly, by some other club members at my kids' school. We have received "Lice Letters" from the school 5 different times since school started at the end of August, and we got a new one the Monday of that week. As always, I took an hour or so to thoroughly check all 4 heads the night the letter came home, and found nothing. That Saturday, we were getting pictures made and I wanted to straighten the girls' hair, so I was blow drying the oldest when I saw something. I wasn't sure I had seen it...I wanted to believe that I hadn't seen it...I tried to dismiss it....but there it was. A bug. In my kid's hair. It looked like an alien. As I picked through her hair, repeating "No, no, no" over and over again under my breath and then screaming for my husband to come and provide back-up, I saw a teeny-tiny white thing on the hair shaft, near her scalp, and I was convinced that it was an egg. My kid had lice. My husband wasn't convinced. He didn't see anything. He said "I really think that you are 'nit-picking.' I don't see anything." I stared blankly at him for a moment and replied "Do you know where that phrase 'nit-picking' comes from?!" I explained that we had received another lice letter earlier that week. I called the other kids into the bathroom and began meticulously looking through their heads. My OCD kicked in. My mind was racing. "Is that an egg?" "Is that?!" "What about THAT??!!" I was a little frantic...
Luckily, (for me at least), one of my dearest friends had just been through this with her own kids. I, on her behalf, had called another of my best friends who is a hair dresser and had asked her what she needed to do. My hairdresser friend used to go to people's houses to delouse their kids (at a hefty price) and I knew that she was an expert. After a few frantic moments of just straight up freaking out, I took a deep breath and began organizing in my head what needed to be done.
First things first: I called the photographer and let her know what I had discovered. She said the pictures are outside. You are my last appointment. I am booked until April. In short, don't cancel. So I didn't. (And the pictures turned out great). Then I called my kids' friends' parents to let them know what was up so that they could be on the look out on their own kids. (I would call the school on Monday.) Finally, I called our pediatrician's office to let them know and to verify my plan of attack, which was unconventional (and which I will explain in a second). Here is what the doctor told me when she called me back:
1) She does not recommend the over the counter treatments. Nix and Rid are EXTREMELY harsh. I would have to wear gloves to apply it to my kids' heads and then wash their hair in the sink to prevent the chemicals from touching any other part of their bodies. It would most likely dry their hair and scalp out to the point that they will scratch uncontrollably -- possibly until they drew blood, thereby making further application impossible until the wounds heal.
2) Nix and Rid are often INEFFECTIVE. That's right, lice in North America are developing resistance to these treatments. Even before resistance began to occur, these products NEVER killed the eggs -- nothing but heat or cold will kill the eggs. That is why these products come with a "Nit Comb." Regardless of what treatment you use, you HAVE TO pick the eggs out manually. It takes forever, they are sticky and hard to see, but if you do not remove every last egg, you will not get rid of the lice.
3) The level of infestation that I described to her indicated that they had gotten it in the last 2-3 days. She said that one of the worst times of year was NOW and one of the easiest places to get them was the bus. (My kids are no longer bus riders).
4) Done correctly, the method that I planned would work perfectly well and I would need to continue to check them daily for the next few weeks to prevent them from re-infesting.So as soon as we got home, I got to work. I am going to outline here exactly what I did in case you ever find your own family recruited into this club. Here is what you will need to do unless you think that everyone in your family would look good with a buzz-cut:
1) Gather all of the bed linens, blankets, stuffed animals, etc. You have 3 choices of how to treat these -- dry in a hot dryer for NO LESS THAN 30 minutes (sustained heat for 5-7 minutes should be sufficient, but it takes a bit to get consistent heat through everything in the dryer, freeze in a deep freezer for at least 10 hours, or seal them up in plastic garbage bags (use duct tape to seal the tops) for 1 week. Lice cannot live off of a human host for more than 36 hours, but hey, you can eliminate the clutter for a whole week! We sealed up the majority of the stuffed animals and washed all of the linens in hot water and dried them in a hot dryer and we dried the pillows for 30 minutes. Any recently worn clothes, hats, jackets, sweaters, and coats too. Because we know that our kids got this at school, I did the same with their backpacks. You think you have a lot of laundry now, wait until you get lice.
2) Brush every tangle, knot and rat's nest out of your kids' hair and your own and then gather every brush and comb that you own. Even if you think the infected kid hasn't touched them, treat them anyway. Clean all the loose hair out, stop up the sink and put them in. Put some water on to boil and once it boils, turn it off and wait for it to stop boiling. Now pour the extremely hot water over the brushes and combs until covered, add a little shampoo, and let them soak until the water cools enough to put your hands in it. Hand wash them all, rinse them well, and let them air dry.
3) Vacuum everything. We vacuumed carpets, drapes, mattresses, pillows -- all of it. Because we had been out, we also vacuumed the car and wiped down the interior just to be safe. Then empty the vacuum into a plastic bag, seal it up, and put it in the outside trash can. (Again, this is hyper-vigilance since lice cannot survive off of a human host very long).
4) Go buy 4 things -- a large bottle of cheap olive oil, tea tree oil, disposable shower caps, and a nit comb. We got a gallon of olive oil from Target for $20 and a small bottle of pure tea tree oil for about $5. The shower caps and nit comb came from a beauty supply store and cost about $10. (Nix and Rid are $20 a box and require 2 boxes per head -- in my family, that route would have cost us at least $240 plus tax. This method let me treat my entire family for around $40 and we have enough olive oil left over to do it at least 2 more times.)
5) Cancel all of your plans for at least the next 48 hours. You are not going anywhere. You are about to embark on a nit-picking adventure and you have a ton of laundry to do.
6) Take the tea tree oil and add 3-5 drops per ounce to everyone's shampoo and conditioner. This will not "prevent" re-infestation, but it will discourage it. I also mixed 5 drops per ounce of water in a spray bottle and I spray the kids backpacks and jackets every day before they go to school, as well as using the tea tree water to spray in their hair as I fix it every morning. (I also throw their backpacks and jackets into the dryer for 30 minutes when they get home every day.)
7) You are going to take the olive oil and SATURATE the tangle free hair. Be certain that you rub it into the scalp as well (the scalp is key since this is where they live and feed). I also combed it through with a wide tooth comb and then a fine tooth comb just to be sure that every strand was covered. If you see any eggs, go ahead and pull them out. You will be pulling them out anyway when this first phase is done, so if you see any now you might as well get a jump on it. Once the hair AND SCALP are completely covered, put the shower cap on and wait no less than 2 hours (lice can hold their breath for up to 2 hours, so make sure that you pass that mark). Treat EVERYONE in the house -- even if you do not think that they have any lice because you want to be absolutely certain that you eradicate them all. Start with the youngest kid. It will make your life infinitely easier, trust me. We put on Netflix for the kids to keep them distracted because this is not a pleasant experience -- it is hot and as the oil warms up it runs and that tickles. Of course, I spent this 2 hours running the washer and dryer and researching lice on the internet...more on that later).
8) After the 2 hours is up, the fun part starts (not really). Now you have to go through the hair, practically strand by strand. You are looking for eggs. The viable eggs (those that could hatch out brand new lice in the next 7 days or so) will be within 1/4 inch of the scalp. They are darn near impossible to see, especially if your kids have light colored hair, but you can feel them. They feel like little grains of sugar or sand. If you touch what you think is an egg and it falls, then it is not an egg. Eggs are cemented to the hair shaft and have to be slid out. The olive oil will make them a lot easier to remove. You can use the nit comb on shorter hair and to help you separate a section of longer hair to go through, but on longer hair, do not trust the nit comb to get the eggs out. You will have to use your thumb nail and then wipe them off onto a tissue or paper towel. In my experience, at best the nit comb slid the eggs down the hair shaft but it did not remove them. (Just for a little indication of what you are in for, my oldest daughter's hair took me nearly 4 hours to go through -- her hair is almost to her waist and very thick).
9) Now that you have done all of that, wash the hair in water that is as hot as you can stand without it being painful. You will most likely have to wash it at least twice to remove all of the oil. Apply conditioner, rinse, and blow it dry until it is completely dry (look through it while you are blow drying and remove any other eggs that you see).
10) Now do it again. All of it. The olive oil, the shower cap, the nit-picking, washing and blow drying. If your kids are older, like mine, I put the oil in their hair, put the shower cap on, laid down a towel over their newly dried pillows and had them sleep in it. I DO NOT recommend doing this on younger kids. I did not do this on the 5 year old, just the older kids.
11) Check them again. Every. Single. Day. I go through my kids' hair thoroughly when their hair is wet because it is easier, but I look all the time. I use a flashlight to make it easier on my eyes.
12) Repeat the oil treatment 2 more times in one week intervals. (It made my kids' hair look amazing, so we will probably do this every week for awhile). Newly hatched lice nymphs are translucent. It takes 7 days for them to develop into egg-laying adults. So if, by chance, an egg was missed and hatched, in 2 treatments you could eliminate them before more eggs were laid.
13) Blow dry the hair every single time you wash it. The heat will kill any lice or eggs that you may have missed (although much more effective on the eggs than the lice since the hatched lice can run away). Just 105 degrees of sustained heat for a minimum of 5-7 minutes on the head can kill them. If you have the old fashioned dryer that you sit under, even better.
14) You may find eggs or egg casings farther away from the scalp -- we found 2-3 close to the ends of the girls' hair the second go-round. Most likely, you dislodged these while you were nit-combing, but didn't get them all the way out of the hair. They are no longer viable (according to the internet, my hairdresser, and my pediatrician), but remove them anyway. I didn't want to take any chances.
15) Notify the school, your friends, your kids' friends' parents, anyone that you or your kids have been around since you believe that your kids were infested.
Here is what I learned: You do not have to use dangerous chemicals to get rid of these pests, but you do have to be thorough and persistent. I go through my kids hair every day now. They hate it, but I haven't found ANY lice or eggs and Saturday will be 2 weeks. I did all of this on a Saturday and Sunday. Sunday night, my hair dresser friend came over to "double-check" my work. She declared them all clean. She was so convinced that they were lice-free that she used her own brushes, combs, clippers, and scissors to cut their hair. When they went back to school, the school nurse also checked them and declared them clean. A second set of eyes REALLY helps -- you will feel like you are going cross-eyed after a couple of heads.
As annoying as all of this was, the REALLY annoying part came when I called the school on Monday. I love our school nurse. She is good at her job and having 4 kids in the school means that I know her pretty well. BUT -- she is restricted by the bureaucracy and rules that the school has to comply with. The school district does not send kids home or require them to stay home unless the school nurse has personally observed live bugs in their hair. Head full of eggs? Sure! Come on to class! And she isn't allowed to check heads without parental permission unless the teacher has reason to believe that the kid may have lice. Even if a kid in the class has lice, she can't check the rest of the class without permission from the parents. And those lice letters? They do not go out per grade -- they go out per CLASS. Each grade has 6+ classes and they are not restricted to interacting with just their class (or even just their grade). Lice usually die within 18 hours of being removed from their host, but can live off of a human head for up to 36 hours (according to my doctor, my hairdresser, the internet, and every other source that I could find). They cannot jump or fly, but they crawl extremely fast. Direct contact with an infected head or surface is required to share this pest, but in an elementary school, that happens a lot more than you might think. 3rd and 4th grade students are "reading buddies" with kindergarten students, 5th and 6th graders do the same with 1st graders as well as volunteer all over the school -- during PE, in the library, in the lunchroom, etc. But when a kid in Ms. Smith's 6th grade class gets lice (if the parents even tell the school, because there is no rule requiring them to do so), the "Lice Letter" only goes out to Ms. Smith's class. Not the whole 6th grade, and not the whole school as it should. Our school nurse said that the reason was to save the kids any embarrassment. When I asked why they allowed kids with nits to come to school, she said because the powers that be determined that kids were missing too much school as a result of the "no nit" policy, so they changed it. Through talking with her, I could tell that she was not happy about it, but her hands were tied. Learning all of this made me determined to ensure that my kids were not re-infested (hence, the dryer and the tea tree oil and the daily checks).
As for my chosen method, if you research on the internet and go to Web MD and The CDC site, you will find that it states that the olive oil method has been "disproved." When I asked my pediatrician about that she said that no actual study had been done and that the reason that they say that is because people do not do it right. They put oil on the hair for a half hour or so, don't use a shower cap, don't nit-pick, don't blow dry, etc. and when they still have lice, they claim the method doesn't work. Both my pediatrician and my hairdresser said that the process only works if you are thorough and follow all of the steps. I am here to tell you that it DOES work. I got rid of lice in my house in less than 2 days. My friend who went through this before me, started with the chemical route. She did not try the oil until she had been battling them for nearly 2 weeks. As soon as she did the oil, BOOM, no more lice.
There are a lot of myths about lice that just aren't true, so I am going to close with a few things I learned from my research. I research all the time -- it is part of my freelance work -- and I go way beyond page one Google results. Here are some of the things that I learned:
1) Lice prefer CLEAN hair. Having lice does not mean that you are dirty.
2) Nits take 5-7 days to hatch, 5-7 days to become adults capable of laying eggs, and the adults can live up to 25 days. This life cycle is based upon the bugs being left alone, of course. There have been reports of eggs hatching after 9 days and adults living as long as 30 days, but from the egg to death is no more than 5 weeks according to nearly every single site I visited on the internet. My doctor told me that if I missed an egg, it would hatch within the week, and treating with the oil in one week would kill the nymphs before they had a chance to reach adulthood. The treatment 2 weeks out is considered optional by most everyone (except me. I hate bugs.)
3) Only female lice can lay eggs, but once they have been fertilized just once, they can lay up to 100 eggs in their lifespan. Yep, fertilized. Lice reproduce sexually. So if you have eggs, chances are there have been bugs having sex on your head. (Females only have to mate once to be fertilized. Then they can lay eggs until they die.)
4) The eggs are laid close to the scalp because newly hatched nymphs must have their first blood meal within seconds of hatching. Eggs farther than 2 inches from the scalp are not considered viable because the newly hatched nymph would be too weak to crawl that far to reach the scalp to feed.
5) Lice do not transmit any disease, they do not burrow into the skin, and they cannot jump, hop, or fly. Although possible, it is unlikely that a louse would survive off of it's host long enough to be transmitted via hats, carpets, or jackets. Infestation generally occurs through head to head or hair to hair contact.
6) Head lice CANNOT live on household pets -- they only live on humans.
7) Scratching does not mean lice. In fact, many kids with lice exhibit NO SYMPTOMS at all. Mine didn't. Had I not been blow drying my daughter's hair, my family could have been completely infested before I ever knew.
8) There are prescription treatments available for full-blown lice infestations that there has not been any evidence of resistance of, but they are still harsh.
9) Girls are 2-4 times more likely to get lice than boys, and kids ages 4-14 (where all 4 of mine fall) are the most commonly infected group.
10) Braiding longer hair can help to prevent re-infestation.
11) Lice will run from light, preferring to stay in the dark shadows of the hair.
12) The blow drying will dehydrate the eggs, but live lice will simply run around on the head to avoid the hot air, so blow drying should be done in conjunction with other treatments.
13) Lice prefer to congregate on the warmest, darkest areas of the head -- behind the ears and the nape of the neck. However, that does not mean that is the only place that you will find them or their eggs. I found most of the eggs on my kids on their crown.
14) If you or your kid get lice, you have to take care of it at home. Either yourself or hiring someone to come to you. You cannot go to a salon with lice. Professional nit-pickers charge up to $200 per hour.
15) Hair color, perm solutions, and other common chemical treatments will NOT kill lice.There is more, but these things seemed to be the most informative and dispel the most myths out there about lice. I opted not to include pictures because, well, ewww. Lice are gross. They look like alien creatures. I figure if you want to see one you can Google it. As for now, me and my kids are lice free and regardless of school bureaucracy, we will stay that way, because I don't do bugs. Period.