Welcome to the beginning of a new school year! It’s an exciting time of meeting new teachers, meeting up with friends, finding new friends, and the joy of being in the next grade up. Living under this bridge of happiness and excitement is the dreaded louse. Lice are an unfortunate risk in group settings such as schools, daycares, and even regular play groups. Any time you throw a bunch of kids together, there is the possibility that Susie is going to come home with a case of head lice. If you are lucky you’ll never see a case. However, it should be expected that you’ll come across a case of head lice, especially because as parents we’ve done a fabulous job at teaching our children to share, and there is nothing worse than being unprepared for that possibility.
What is head lice?
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), head lice (known as Pediculus humanus capitis) is a parasitic insect that can be found on the head, eyebrows, and eyelashes of people. Head lice feed on human blood several times a day and live close to the human scalp. Yuck! The CDC has a great FAQ about head lice here. Some of the need-to-know basics about lice are that they do not jump or fly from host to host–direct contact is necessary to spread the little buggers. They do not live on your pets. Head lice is not an indication that a child is dirty or nasty or that the household hazardous. Lice do not spread diseases. However, children can get skin infections from scratching if left untreated. Lastly, there is no reason to panic, it is treatable, and the following info will get you through managing this temporary crisis.
What to do if you find lice:
First things first. Lice affects children in different ways. Some children are sensitive to the bites and will itch like mad crazy. You’ll see them just scratching away and know something is up. Other children seem unfazed, so it will take preventative head checks to find an infestation. Monthly head checks are recommended, but we’ll unwrap that here in a bit.
Step 1: Stay calm and gather supplies
In reality, a calm parent is going to be key to minimizing stress to the child. It is going to be quite a process for them, too. Hopefully, both your tears will be kept to a minimum. Now, there are a couple ways you can approach this. First, is the traditional lice shampoo plus your time and effort. The other is a more natural approach plus your time and effort. Lucky for you, I’ve used both methods and they do work if you do them right so I’ll walk you through both.
Things you’ll need for the traditional method:
- A large chunk of time, anywhere from 2-5 hours
- Lice shampoo (Nix, Rid, store brands)
- Nit comb (this is included with some shampoos)
- Hair ties, clips, etc. for longer hair
- A well lit place
- A lot of patience
Things you’ll need for a more natural method:
- A whole day to stay home
- An oil of some sort (coconut, olive, canola, etc.)
- A shower cap
- Shampoo or dish soap
- Nit Comb
- Hair ties, clips, etc. for longer hair
- A well lit place
- A lot of patience
Step 2: Treat the hair
If you are using the lice shampoo, this is the easy part. Apply the shampoo to the hair according to the packaged directions. This should only take about twenty minutes from the beginning of application to rinse out. This is a pesticide, so please follow directions carefully.
If you’d rather go the natural route, then soak the hair in the oil of your choice. Coconut seems to be the most popular, but olive is great too. Though, I’m admittedly cheap and plain ol’ canola works just as well. Once you have the hair wetted with oil, then cover with a shower cap lined with paper towel on the forehead to keep from dripping in the eyes. Let your munchkin watch tv/movies for 6-8 hours. Yes, I said 6 to 8 hours. Lice can hold their breath for a really, really long time. After the time is up wash out the oil.
Step 3: Nit picking
This is one of two essential steps in getting through the infestation in one shot. Depending on the length of hair this could take just a couple of hours to several hours. I know, that seems very intimidating. Have a glass of wine, pull up the boot straps, and dig in. At this time you are basically going to be looking for nits strand by stand and then pulling them off the hair when you find them. You’ll also want to mentally prepare to find dead lice in there. (Ick!) First up, separate your child’s hair into smaller sections. Little sections that you can work with and then move out of the way. Really, just make your kid look like Coolio.
Next, start searching near the scalp for nits attached to the hair. Look at thin 1″ areas at a time.
You’ll know it is a nit rather than dandruff/sand/glitter/fuzz because the little things do not move. Now, lice combs say you can comb nits out, but I’ve never had luck with that. I prefer pinching the nit and sliding it off the hair. It is labor intensive and kids will get wiggly, tired, bored, sore, etc. Try to work in some breaks if you can or have another adult present so you can switch off.
P.S. Don’t start this step at 10:00 p.m. because by 1:30 a.m. you’ll have a very delirious and cranky child.
Step 4: Wash bedding and bag soft stuff up
Here is a big myth I’m going to dispel right now before you want to check out and leave this mess to someone else. You do not have to wash every single piece of clothing and bedding and curtains you own. Furthermore, you shouldn’t even have to make a trip to the laundromat. Here is what you wash: the dirty laundry in the hamper (or on the floor if it is anything like my house), sheets/pillowcase/comforter, and if you are generous, hats and dress-up clothing. Pillows can skip the washer and go in the dryer on hot heat for 30-40 minutes.
In the meantime, bag up the stuffed animals on the bed. Any stuffed animals that haven’t had direct contact with the head can stay out and still be played with. Yay! Other things you will want to bag are anything hair related that can’t be washed. Seal up the bags for two weeks. Items like brushes and combs can be washed in hot, soapy water. Personally, I bag dress-up because I don’t feel like washing it every day for two weeks.
Step 5: Stay vigilant
If you follow steps 1-4 you will win the first battle, but if you do not continue with follow-up then you will lose the war. This is just like when you need to take antibiotics. Even if you feel better (or in the case of lice, if everything seems fine), you still have to see it through until the end. Over the next 7 to 10 days you. will. nit. pick. your. child. every. day. It is highly unlikely that you will find all the nits in the first few go-rounds. Aside from the initial freak out about bugs in the hair, this is the worst part.
You will also be changing bedding every day and drying the pillow every day. Feel free to vacuum the furniture every day while you are at it, because it’s unlikely you will be able to keep them off for two weeks. Seven to ten days after the initial treatment, you will do a follow up treatment and final nit pick. Now, if the infestation continues after a super vigilant two weeks, then see your pediatrician, because they will have some resources for you and can prescribe a stronger lice treatment.
Prevention is Key
Remember when I mentioned a few paragraphs back that monthly head checks are recommended? I really mean they are necessary. Long gone are the days when children went home from school if lice was found and then allowed back only if they are nit free. Cedar Rapids Community School District, Linn-Mar Community School District, and College Community School District all have policies maintaining that children stay in the classroom and at school every day. While education is important, policies such as these make it much more likely that at some point your child is going to bring lice home from school.
There are some preventative measures you can take at home, because most likely they really aren’t taking them at schools. (For example, the dreaded lice flier came home the day before the first grade musical. All the girls in darling daughter’s class wore flower crowns during the performance. As they were leaving I watched in horror as each girl placed her flower crown in a communal grocery sack for storage. They had another performance the next school day, ugh.) Many places sell prevention sprays for lice. They usually contain something like tea tree oil, rosemary, or witch hazel. Use with caution. Tea tree oil and witch hazel can irritate the skin if used too much.
My personal suggestion is to invest in a Robi Comb®. You can buy this at many drug stores and online. The Robi Comb is powered with one AA battery, and lice will be electrocuted to death! Yaas! And from personal experience please don’t touch your child’s ear while you comb. They’ll get a little cranky at you. My kiddos get a comb out every month or two. On the rare occasion that we’ve had an infestation, I use this nifty comb to unleash murder and mayhem on lice.
Now, go forth with this info to add to your arsenal of knowledge against the nasty things we deal with in parenthood. Meanwhile, I’m going to go scratch my head to death, because talking about lice makes me itchy.