I was a head lice virgin. Every once in a while, our elementary school would send home a flyer about a case of lice, and I would casually glance over my children’s silky blond heads, imagining an insect the size of a mosquito. No, nothing.
Then, just after winter vacation, I noticed that my daughter seemed to be scratching above and behind her ears a lot. For all my ignorance, I knew that was a telltale sign. I asked Leeza, our omniscient former nanny, to inspect. In a previous life, she was the deputy director of a summer camp in Ukraine, where she became all too well acquainted with lice — and where they were treated the nasty old-fashioned way, with kerosene (don’t try that at home) and head-shaving. And yes, this was another case.
My heart dropped. My mind spun. I ran to the drugstore, ransacked Google and obsessively begged advice from friends and virtual strangers. Turns out lice infestations are a bit like miscarriages — when you speak up, almost everyone has a story. And here’s the good news: If you have to catch head lice, Boston is a prime place to do it, because we’re extraordinarily rich in expertise. We have the National Pediculosis Association, a 28-year-old non-profit that aims to educate and prevent. We have Richard J. Pollack, PhD, an entomologist and louse expert affiliated with Harvard and Boston Universities who has researched and taught about such pests for decades. We have the Massachusetts School Nurse Organization, led by president Mimi Stamer, PNP. And we have “The Nit-Picker, Inc.,” a Needham-based lice and nit removal service that is ten years old, makes house calls and has helped more than 5,000 clients. (Including my children. Best birthday present I ever got.)
I climbed a steep learning curve on head lice, from their life cycles to the gamut of remedies, and am thrilled to report that my children now appear to be lice-free — at least, for now. And I’ve calmed down quite a bit, accepting head lice as a problem that must be painstakingly dealt with — one friend calls it “The Olympics of Motherhood” — but not a threat.
Next week, I’ll get into the controversial lice-information landscape and the latest news on remedies. But first, I wanted to ask our experts the questions that are never addressed in the shampoo instructions or the doctor’s office. When it comes to head lice, how are we supposed to behave with each other? Many parents seem to observe a sort of lice omerta. Biblical feuds flare in families over lice. Friendships break up. Communities fracture into factions. What did you know and when did you know it? Perhaps we could all use a head lice code of conduct. Here’s an initial attempt, and readers, I implore you to contribute your feedback and ask your own questions. We’ll be running three or four questions a day all week, and then will put it all together in one overarching post, which also discussed on Radio Boston.
Combing out lice and nits with a special comb
(Full disclosures: I should note that Richard Pollack and the National Pediculosis Association are longtime adversaries. On the head-lice spectrum, Richard is on the end that sees lice as a natural part of human life for millennia, and the shampoos available as generally good solutions. The NPA, led by Deborah Altschuler, sees head lice as a significant public health problem and is deeply concerned about the pesticides in the shampoos; it advocates a no-nit policy. Richard operates a business, IdentifyUS LLC, that offers guidance and insect identification services. He consults to shampoo makers but has no financial interest in their products. The NPA, a volunteer nonprofit, sells specially developed nit combs. And of course, Helen Hadley owns The Nit-Picker, Inc., a private lice and nit removal service, and Mimi Stamer represents the MSNO school nurse constituency.)
1. I find out that my child has lice. I’m panicked and embarrassed. Do I have to tell anyone? Continue reading