How to Bond Over Head Lice Removal

Louse invasions could revive the long-lost art of nitpicking.

| May-June 1999

Nothing prepared me for my first encounter with a live louse—not the big cockroach battalions invading the shared kitchens of my student days, not the fleas leaping from cat to carpet, not even the "lice alert" notice from my daughter's school.

One morning while I was tethering my 6-year-old's willful hair into braids, I noticed a dark fleck scurrying among her tresses. I had never seen a head louse before, but I knew this tiny insect could be nothing else. There is something so repulsive about tiny parasites vampirizing innocent children that my heart started racing.

I fished the school notice from the wastebasket. "Search your child's hair carefully," I read. "If nits are present, immediately apply an over-the-counter anti-lice shampoo." With extended fingertips, I carefully lifted small strands of Ella's hair and discovered a tiny ecosystem on her scalp. Sesame-seed-sized pearly nits—the dreaded louse eggs—were glued firmly to the roots of hair shafts, and a live louse was seeking refuge behind a softly rounded curl. The evidence of parasites feasting, mating, and defecating on my daughter's head stirred powerful feelings inside me, triggering a primordial fear that nature could hold our civilization hostage.

My mind crawled with images I hadn't known it held: locust swarms devouring plantations, leeches sucking a man's lifeblood until he resembles a shriveled balloon, termites chewing through age-old roof beams. I realized that insects could decide at any time to invade the spaces we inhabit.

To dispel my irrational fears, I gathered facts. I learned that of the more than 3,000 species of biting and sucking lice, only three are partial to human blood. "It only takes one nit to infest an entire classroom," claims a prevailing myth. But lice are not that powerful. They can't hop, jump, or fly, but must climb up to the human scalp. Still, as a species, lice are astonishingly fecund. Each female lays eggs three to five times each day—more than 100 eggs in her 30-day life. And they are bonded to human hair shafts with a substance that puts superglue to shame.

One good thing: Lice are democratic. Anyone can get them, regardless of social standing, education, housing, good behavior, or cleanliness. Yet one study found that more than half of all Americans would be embarrassed by head lice in the family. It's probably closer to 100 percent; hairdressers tell me that parents always cringe when they're told their beloved youngster's scalp is crawling. One father even confessed to me that buying anti-lice shampoo was almost as discomfiting as buying condoms as a teenager.

Peter Whittle
1/26/2010 2:35:01 AM

Head lice are easy to deal with. Purchase a nit comb. Apply generous quantity of cheap hair conditioner and massage through hair. Comb out the conditioner and discard it, then rinse hair. Repeat every week or so until lice and nits are gone. It works, is non-toxic and it makes the hair shine as well. I guess the detergent in the conditioner asphyxiates the critters and also enables them to be easily combed out.

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