By Howard J. Bennett
Of all the notices parents get from school, the worse by far is the one that says head lice are in the classroom. I have seen the toughest moms wilt at the mere mention of the word. And how is it that a creature the size of a sesame seed can strike fear into the hearts of parents who have vanquished the germs that cause ear infections and diarrhea? The answer is that head lice are not only hard to kill, but the lotions, creams and shampoos used to treat them frustrate parent and child alike. In addition, many schools won’t let kids back to class until they are free of nits (lice eggs).
The most disgusting thing about lice is the fact that an insect, albeit a small one, is feasting on our bodies. A child with influenza has millions of viruses attacking his cells, but all you can see is a sick child with a cough and runny nose. A typical case of lice only involves hundreds or thousands of insects. However, because kids can feel them (they cause an itchy scalp) and parents can see them, the gross out factor is raised to epic proportions.
Head lice have been around for thousands of years and can be found all over the world, but they are not dangerous and don’t carry disease. They have even been found on Egyptian mummies!
Head lice have a pretty simple existence. They crawl around on the human scalp feeding on the host’s blood. An adult louse is tan to grayish white and has six legs equipped with tiny claws to grasp hair. Lice bites don’t hurt because they are so tiny. The females lay up to 100 eggs in their thirty-day lifespan and attach the eggs to hair shafts close to the scalp. (Lice moms do this by secreting some sort of “glue” that cements the egg to the hair shaft.)
Lice can be transmitted from person to person by direct contact or by sharing hats, helmets, combs or hairbrushes. Although adults can get head lice, it’s most common among children. This happens because kids have closer contact with each other at school and other activities.
The most popular lice treatments contain insecticides that are put on the hair to kill the insects. After killing the adult lice, parents use special combs and lotions to remove the nits.
You may have heard that in the past few years some bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics. (That means it’s harder to treat certain infections.) Well, the same thing is true for lice, and many of the products used to kill these nasty creatures are less effective than in the past. That’s why you may need to be treated more than once to completely rid yourself of the bugs. Of course, a buzz cut (sorry girls), will get rid of the suckers in one fell swoop.
© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 4/26/10.)
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