Confessions of a Nitpicker

by Christine Schoefer
Issue 92, January – February 1999

Illustration of head liceNothing 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 during the routine act of tethering my six 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 that this tiny insect could be nothing else. There is something so repulsive about tiny parasites vampirizing innocent children that my heart started racing. I dropped the comb and 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 shampoo.” With extended fingertips, I carefully lifted small strands of Ella’s hair to the light 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. “Every child can get head lice,” the school notice said, “so there is no reason to be ashamed.” But the evidence of parasites feasting, mating, and defecating on my daughter’s head stirred powerful feelings inside of me. My daughter’s head lice triggered a primordial fear that nature could hold our civilization hostage.

Unexpectedly, my mind began to crawl with images I hadn’t known it held: locust swarms devouring entire plantations, leeches sucking the very lifeblood from a man until he resembles a shriveled balloon, termites chewing their way through age-old roof beams. I realized suddenly that some part of me believes that insects could decide at any time to plan an invasion of the spaces we inhabit. In this creepy scenario, lice have the job of colonizing the human body.

In order to dispel my irrational fears, I gathered facts. I learned that more than 3,000 species of biting and sucking lice exist, although fortunately only three are partial to human blood. Because of their resilience, it’s tempting to ascribe supernatural powers to these tiny vampires. “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 step by step. Still, as a species, lice are astonishingly fecund. Each female lays eggs three to five times each day; that is more than 100 eggs in her 30-day life cycle. And these are bonded to human hair shafts with a substance that puts super glue to shame.

One good thing that you can say about head lice: They are very democratic pests. Anyone can get head lice, regardless of social standing, education, housing, good behavior, or cleanliness. St. Francis probably carried the tiny, unwanted crawlers under his hood; Queen Victoria felt itchy beneath her jeweled crown; and George Washington scratched under his powdered wig.

But ubiquity hasn’t improved the louse’s popularity. A recent study found that more than half of all Americans would be embarrassed by head lice in the family. I think that number is too low; it’s probably closer to 100 percent. Hairdressers tell me that parents always cringe when told that their beloved youngster’s scalp is crawling. One father even confessed to me that buying antilice shampoo for the first time was almost as discomfiting as buying condoms as a teenager.

Meanwhile, lice infestations are on the rise. Because most cases of pediculosis (the formal name for a lice attack) are diagnosed and treated by parents, who don’t report to the CDC, few reliable statistics are available. But many public health officials refer to a new pediculosis “epidemic.” And there seems little doubt that about twice as many children are being diagnosed today as ten years ago. Children aged five to 12 are particularly vulnerable, since they often put their heads together during play. As a result, thousands of parents of grade schoolers like myself are learning to appreciate the descriptive power of that old phrase “going over things with a fine-toothed comb.” It’s how you delouse. Endlessly.

What accounts for today’s sudden head louse epidemic? Debra Altschuler, founder and director of the National Pediculosis Association (NPA), sees no particular mystery. She says it’s a matter of louse laxity. Our grandparents were practically always on lice alert, using whatever folk remedies were available, and incorporating meticulous head lice screening into their hygiene routine. My mother vividly remembers the tiny raindrop sound of lice hitting the newspaper beneath her head as my great-aunt carefully combed her hair every Saturday night.

During this time–the 1940s and 1950s–the fear of communicable diseases had in fact pushed hygiene to the forefront of the public health agenda. Children knew about germs and were taught in schools how to wash their hands. But in the late 1960s, a major shift occurred, Altschuler says. Young people began rebelling against their parents’ ways and congregating or living in groups. Hygiene habits relaxed and casual intimacy boomed. And head lice began roaming free.

Today, children are brought together in groups–such as daycare–earlier and more frequently than ever before. Yet they receive little instruction in basic hygiene. Not only does our lack of attention to hygiene instruction aid the proliferation of lice, but, according to Altschuler, it means we miss a golden opportunity to teach children about disease. “With kids,” she says, “the problem is head lice. But when they are teenagers, the issue is herpes or AIDS. Why not prepare them for these facts of life? Why not model good lifetime habits of hygiene, beginning with head lice?”

The day I stared at the nits in my daughter’s hair I registered all of the typical stirrings of shame and realized that I, too, had internalized the social stigmatization of children with head lice. Rushing forward in a blind counterattack, I shampooed all three of my daughters with an over-the-counter product that made our eyes burn and our noses sting. I wish now that I hadn’t. I probably just made the lice even stronger. The NPA in fact fields an average of about 50 calls every day from parents and health professionals reporting that treatment-resistant lice have survived bombardment with over-the-counter pediculosis shampoos, such as NIX and RID.

“These are very strong pesticides,” warns Altschuler, “and this is probably the only time that parents willingly apply pesticides to their children’s heads.” Some parents even resort to more extreme measures. Last year, an 11 year old child was hospitalized with severe burns in Massachusetts because she caught on fire after her parents doused her lice-infested hair with gasoline. (See sidebar, for information on safely treating lice.

Today, after three full bouts with pediculosis, I have come to accept that head lice, like temper tantrums and sleep deprivation, are part of the price of living with children. Following my grandmother’s example, I have even developed a sense of humor about the little bloodsuckers. She claims to have made money selling live lice to other youngsters in the schoolyard who desperately wanted to be sent home for the day. All they had to do, she chuckled, was to place the critters in their hair and scratch their heads in front of the teacher.

I can’t say that I have reconciled myself to all the extra work of delousing, but I have come to enjoy the nit-picking sessions. My daughters and I call it primate time, as we huddle together like mountain gorillas on the deck, a long-haired head resting on my knee. We gather the requisite utensils: a small water-filled bowl (for nits and lice), a tiny-toothed comb, a magnifying glass (so we can inspect the offenders), a few treats to relieve boredom (these sessions easily take an hour). As I begin inspecting her hair, strand by strand, I tell her she has a little zoo on top of her head. We imagine together how her hair is a dense forest for scurrying lice. I talk about nitwits and nitpickers, and I don’t correct her when she adds knitting needles to our word game. Eventually, her resentment at having to sit still dissolves into relaxation, and she starts talking. She relates confusing and exciting things she has observed or experienced and unburdens herself of hurts she has collected. She does not expect insightful comments from me, just my attention. Eventually, of course, she gets impatient. And so do I. But we cannot take leave of each other until the job is done, so we persevere in this closeness. In fairy tales, combing hair is a metaphor for setting things straight. Delousing my daughters gives me an opportunity to smooth out the wrinkles in their lives.

When we have finished, I dump the nit-filled water down the drain, squelching my irrational fear that the eggs will somehow hatch in the drainpipe and gang up on us. She scampers off. And as I begin the huge task of delousing the house, it occurs to me that head lice might be tiny messengers from the great spirit, who chuckles at our concern with “saving time” and at our arrogant assumption that nature can be tamed and sterilized. The louse will always prevail. And that is not, I have decided, lousy news after all.

Christine Schoefer, who is the mother of three daughters (all long-haired!), lives in Berkeley, California, where she and a handful of other local parents founded the Waldorf-inspired Elmwood School three years ago.

Illustration by Nancy Harrison.

The Delouser’s Handbook Safe, natural ways to rid your child of lice and nits
Lice are small but sturdy, able to camouflage themselves against your scalp and cement their eggs (nits) to individual hair shafts. In fact, one way you can differentiate lice from, say, dandruff is that lice eggs cannot be flicked away. They must be firmly tugged.

What Not to Do:

  • Do not use prescription products that contain the pesticide lindane. A chemical so dangerous it was part of the toxic soup at Love Canal, it literally burns away the lice–and any skin with which it comes into contact. 
  • Over-the-counter shampoos are less noxious. But those, too, are pesticides. And none, despite their manufacturers’ claims, will kill all lice with only one application. They have no effect at all against nits. Last September, the FTC censured the makers of these shampoos for false and misleading advertising (see “Product Recall Corner,” page 35). 
  • Worst of all, the indiscriminate use of these shampoos has produced a new treatment-resistant strain of head lice. Think of it: Pests you cannot kill. The American Pediculosis Association says it fields about 50 calls a day from parents and physicians reporting that shampoos have had no effect. 


What to Do:

  • A much safer way to kill mature lice is to smother them. A study overseen by the Harvard School of Public Health found that olive oil dabbled onto the scalp could kill lice within two days. The oil must be left in place for a full 48 hours to be effective. Children may balk at this. Try it during a weekend. 
  • For more information, check out the hilarious video Head Lice to Dead Lice, which features a nice young man rather inexplicably in drag explaining how to use olive oil. Call 617-647-5338 to order. 
  • After the mature lice are dead, you must manually remove all the remaining nits. This is time consuming. But it can become a rather lovely ritual. First, separate hair into small sections, then remove all the eggs with fingernails or a delousing comb. Comb the hair in a “teasing” fashion, toward the scalp, rather than from the scalp upward. The eggs are easier to remove this way.  Figure on several hours to complete each scalp. Pass the time by talking, really talking, to your child. Or if that begins to pall after a few days, rent a video your child has been dying to see. Afterward, clean all combs thoroughly with hot, soapy water. 
  • Be sure to delouse your house: Wash bedding and clothing, especially hats, in hot water and dry at a high temperature. Vacuum carpets and furniture. Do not use lice spray. It’s extremely toxic and unnecessary; lice cannot survive without human blood for more than 48 hours. 

Keeping the Lice At Bay

  • Early detection is the best prevention. Routinely check for head lice and nits when you comb your child’s hair. 
  • Keep long hair braided to minimize contact with other children’s heads.
  • Many families report that regular hair rinsing with vinegar or certain essential oils–especially rosemary, lavender, tea tree oil, and eucalyptus–keeps lice away. And it leaves your child’s scalp smelling like a forest.