Donna Kim-Brand

If you wanted to insult someone, you’d get the job done by calling them a louse or a parasite. And you’d avoid them like the plague.

Well, one of the scourges of returning to school is close encounters with communities of louses, known as lice, tiny insects which cause highly contagious infestations in the hair, eyebrows and even eyelashes of children, teachers, parents and siblings. You’ll either experience lice eggs (nits) or more mature lice bugs which cause tickling as they crawl around the scalp.

Lice can be contracted by sharing infected brushes, combs, hats, towels, clothes or sheets of an infected person; or just by close proximity with their infested hair. Like fleas on animals, lice can jump from one warm head to another and survive up to a month. The one consolation is that head lice, unlike body lice, do not spread disease, just discomfort.  Lice are not an indication of poor hygiene, just bad luck.

There are a few telltale signs. Incessant itching of your child’s head is a big clue. Before you spot red bumps on their scalp and neck you’ll probably spy little white specks stuck to the root of hundreds of your hair strands. Not flakey dandruff-like specks but sticky lice eggs known as nits or their shell casings.

As soon as you suspect lice you should keep your child apart from others while you commence treatment. Most schools allow children to return once they have been treated, so for several reasons, the sooner you handle the issue the better.

You can purchase over the counter lice treatment with 1% permethrin or obtain a prescription from your doctor for stronger treatment if you feel the first treatment wasn’t successful. Commercial treatments are highly toxic and can cause damage if they get in eyes or are left on too long, so use with care. After regular shampooing, apply the medicated lice shampoo and leave on for ten minutes before rinsing.

You will then want to run a very fine-tooth metal nit comb from the scalp along the full length of hair strands, all over the head, to slide off the now dead (or dying) lice egg sacks. This is a tedious task and patience will serve you well. It’s a perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness and connecting with the person whose hair you are de-lousing. While I never heard this while I was dealing with my own kids’ lice incidents in elementary school, I’ve since heard you can rub olive oil in the hair or run the nit comb through beeswax to ease the nits out.

With any luck, you’ll get rid of the lice with one session, but you’ll have to keep checking every day for at least a week to make sure you do not have a re-infestation. It’s a tricky job because you’re also having to wash the sheets and towels in hot water with detergent daily, spraying carpets and making sure other classmates aren’t prolonging the occurrence. And you certainly want to make sure you don’t get lice either. Funny thing, even writing this article I found myself scratching my head…

Should there be a severe reaction with red, tender skin or sores caused by scratching, or swollen eyes or lymph glands, you should visit a doctor to get antihistamines to curb itching or antibiotics to prevent bacterial infection.

I just heard about a peppermint scented natural remedy called ClearLice, comprised of plant extracts, enzyme complexes and homeopathic ingredients. They mimic the molting process of the lice to disrupt the growth cycle, without building up resistance to treatment as 70% of traditional treatments do. Just being around the traditional lice treatment you can smell and feel how toxic it has to be- it’s a pesticide, after all- so effective natural solutions with minimal side effects would be a god-send. They also apparently make a lice repellant, great for prevention. I wonder if it also keeps mosquitoes at bay?

How do you avoid all the headaches and inconvenience of head lice? The most obvious approach is prevention. My children’s summer camp always included a ‘nit check’ on arrival after registration, before they could join the other kids. Some schools do much the same after the summer break. Aside from isolating individual cases before they have a chance to spread to others, this exercise serves the additional purpose of educating both kids and parents of what lice is and what to do if it’s discovered. I would add in spraying of non-caustic effective repellant before they romp off. Stay connected to the grapevine at your child’s school or camp so you can catch any incidents of lice, or any other outbreak, early. Word tends to travel fast.

Finally, when I used to own a summer camp the counselors did nightly ‘tick checks’, checking campers’ hair and ankles for the little blood-sucking bugs which could attach during their activities in the woods. You can do the same with your youngsters checking for lice, perhaps by making a ritual of ruffling or brushing their hair affectionately while sneaking a peek. Not only will you spot louse parasites early, but you’ll strengthen the ties that bind in the process.

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