Caring For Our Kids

Lice: A rite of passage?

A mother hunts for headlice in a 1662 painting by Jan Siberechts Photo: wikimedia commons

Lice. Just the thought makes me itch. Hearing parents with young children talk about them, I thought that experience would be one of my worst nightmares. When my daughter started kindergarten, there was a section of the parent handbook outlining the school’s lice policy, which I naively breezed over, thinking that would never apply to us. I was under the impression that there was a correlation between personal hygiene and lice, until this past week when I got the dreaded call from my daughter’s teacher and quickly became a lice expert.

If your family has had lice, you will understand every sentiment in this article. If it hasn’t happened to your family yet, then save this advice until it does. Here are three simple tips for dealing with the inevitable elementary school lice outbreak.

Stay calm. This is much easier said than done. I can honestly say I was mortified. A thousand questions raced through my head. Why her? How did this happen? What am I going to do now? I knew that by the time I saw my daughter, I had to be done freaking out and be able to explain to her what was happening. I did a quick Wikipedia search and found out the basics: lice are the actual bugs, and nits are the lice eggs, and what exactly these things look like. The bugs cannot jump, fly or swim and are only passed by head-to-head contact. A wonderful mom (who is also a nurse) met me when I arrived to pick up my daughter at school. Seeing my look of sheer panic and desperation, she took me under her wing. Quickly she helped me map out a plan and assured me this is not a hygiene issue — the bugs actually prefer clean and healthy hair because it makes it easier for them to attach and move around.

Take action. The first thing I did was purchase a nit free comb and a mint spray that would kill both the bugs and the nits. I was warned against many of the shampoos and products at the drugstore; most are harsh and full of chemicals and may kill the bugs but not necessarily the nits. We immediately started combing everyone’s hair, including my own. Next, it was time to tackle the laundry. The good news was lice cannot lay eggs on couches or carpet because they need the warmth of the scalp to survive. The bad news was there might have been bugs that fell off my daughter’s head onto pillows, towels, clothes, and so forth. So to be safe, I filled 13 large garbage bags with all of the towels, sheets, comforters, stuffed animals, and clothes we had used in the past few days and headed to the nearest laundromat. My daughter came with me, so we decided to make it a fun day: She got frozen yogurt and a few hours of mom’s undivided attention while we waited for the laundry. The last step was to vacuum everything — floors, cushions, couches, and just generally do a deep clean. This last measure was purely for my own mental well-being.

Call in reinforcements. For reassurance I was doing everything correctly and treating the situation as quickly as possible, I called Martina Mitchell, who owns Lice Patrol ( She came to our house that night, checked the whole family, and taught me how to comb correctly. She uses only natural, nontoxic treatments and a nit-removing comb (my new best friend). Hair Fairies ( on Fillmore Street offers similar services, but you need to visit their salon, and trying to coordinate family schedules can be tough. Their products are also nontoxic but more expensive. Martina was thorough, reassuring, and did a wonderful job convincing me this was not the end of the world. It was also great that she was able to sign off so that my daughter was able to return to school the next day.

After talking to some experts and even listening to a segment on NPR about head lice, no one has a definitive answer about why this happens or why it is so common. Resistance to many modern shampoos and long hair seem to be contributing factors. The best advice I can provide is this: You will get through it, and everyone will survive intact. It was an exhausting day, but after going through the emotions of panic and desperation, I ended up with a positive attitude that this was a good excuse to jumpstart my spring cleaning.

After all was said and done, just like losing a first tooth or learning to ride a bike, getting and surviving a lice outbreak may also just be part of growing up.

Liz Farrell is the mother of two young children. She was formerly a television producer in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. E-mail: [email protected]
Send to a Friend Print