“I’m taking it to the grave,” says a mother in Poughkeepsie, who declines to give her name before launching into a closely guarded tale. Her hair-raising secret? It has to do with, well, hair. Namely, what her 14-year-old son found in his hair while on his way home from a school trip last June.
“He sent me a photo from the bus,” she recalls. “He was holding a small, translucent thing on his finger.” Googling, she quickly found an image match. What her child had pulled from his scalp was a nymph — also known as a newly hatched louse.
When people learn that they or a loved one have head lice, they’re often deeply ashamed. Yet they have plenty of company in their misery. While there are no reliable statistics for the entire US population, roughly 6 to 12 million lice infestations occur annually among kids aged 3 to 11, the most vulnerable group. (Lice are most commonly spread by head-to-head contact, which is why young children, with their sleepovers and WrestleMania re-enactments, are especially prone.)
Once you know a little about the life cycle of lice, it’s clear why these critters are so widespread. They begin as nits — eggs laid on a hair shaft that hatch after eight or nine days. After a brief nymph stage, they’re grown up and looking for love. “By six to 10 days, a nit becomes a reproductive bug,” explains Jill Bazos, co-founder of L!ceOut911 in Bedford Hills, who treats clients across the Hudson Valley. “A female gets pregnant once, at about the 10-day mark, and lays five eggs twice a day for 20 more days.” Her lifespan lasts only a month (males’ as well), but she leaves behind 200 offspring, each feeding every two to three hours on blood from the scalp of their human host.
Worse, a growing number of lice are so-called super lice. No, they don’t have X-ray vision, nor do they fly (lice don’t have wings). They’ve earned the moniker because they’re immune to the pesticides used in most common lice treatments. “About 25 states now have these super lice,” says Thomas J. Daniels, PhD, who heads the Vector Ecology Lab at Fordham University’s Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station. Why are they on the rise? “If you don’t kill every last louse with a pesticide, you end up with a segment of the population that is immune to it, and that passes on those genes to their offspring,” Daniels explains.
Given the tenacity of these buggers, many people with head lice turn to the pros for help. Our Poughkeepsie anony-mom contacted L!ceOut911 and brought her son to Bazos. Mother (who checked out clean) and son spent several hours at Bazos’ “lice lounge,” an elegant salon where clients enjoy a craft project or iPad movie while Bazos attends to their hair.
“I use all-natural products, but most important is my comb,” Bazos says. The fine-toothed instrument, called The Terminator, is crucial for detaching lice and their eggs from people’s locks. “Strand by strand, I check every hair on the head.” The process generally takes one to four hours, at a cost of roughly $99 per hour of treatment with an up-front $30 lice-check fee. Rechecks, done after about a week, are complimentary.
Wendy Beck, co-owner of LiceDoctors in Short Hills, New Jersey, is another well-known nitpicker. She’s been making house calls to clients in the Hudson Valley for 16 years. “Often, when we arrive, the family is at the door cheering, ‘The lice lady is here!’” she says. “By the time they call us, nine out of 10 people have tried everything else.” Beck’s approach — an extensive examination and combing-out, along with olive-oil treatments to smother any stowaways — has a 100 percent success rate, she says.
Visiting customers’ homes, Beck sees first-hand how a lice infestation can cause profound family tension. “I went to a family in Poughkeepsie once,” she recalls. “There were three daughters, all with very long hair. The mom was freaking out, and the two older girls, both teenagers, were crying and upset that they had gotten lice from their younger sister, who was about 6 or 7,” she says. “When you’re a teen, you have so much going on, and there’s a lot of peer pressure — they were worried that if someone found out they had lice, they would be ostracized.”
The teens’ reaction brings up another aspect of dealing with lice — the bugs’ impact on schools. Policies vary among districts, so check with yours. But don’t assume your lice-infested child will be chilling in front of his Xbox till he’s all clear. “Here in the Kingston City School District, we are aligned with the 2015 guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics,” says Karen Waligurski, a nurse at Kingston’s Ernest C. Myer Elementary School. The Academy recommends letting children attend classes again as soon as they’ve been treated, and even letting them finish out the day if their lice is first discovered during school hours. (For its treatment recommendations, visit AAP.org.)
This no-panic policy is rooted in science: Lice simply can’t spread quickly unless the right opportunities are in place. “They don’t fly, and they’re not particularly fast,” says Daniels, the vector ecologist. “Mostly, they only crawl from one head to another, if people’s heads are in direct contact.” So while an infected kid shouldn’t be crowding in for selfies with his pals, his mere presence won’t lead to a classroom-wide infestation. “I think the culture is changing,” says Waligurski. “When school nurses and teachers and families don’t panic, there is a trickle-down, and much less stigma is attached. Early detection and treatment is quite effective.”
Still, our Poughkeepsie mom took no chances, notifying her child’s school anonymously, through L!ceOut911’s Jill Bazos, that her son had contracted lice. Many nurses will send a note home to all class parents in such instances, informing them to be on the lookout for lice symptoms (see box). Nurses may also decide to give all children in the class a lice examination, though at least in Waligurski’s school, “we don’t do sweeps of the entire school,” she says. “According to research, it hasn’t been effective as an intervention.”
Poughkeepsie mom is glad to have put her son’s lice ordeal behind her. While she hopes there’s never a next time, if there is, she’ll know what to do. “Keep calm,” she says. “Once you get the right treatment from the right person, it’s all good.” Still, months later, she’s haunted. “Even just talking about it, months later, I’m putting a hand on my head,” she laughs. “I’m feeling for creepy-crawlies.”