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PERSPECTIVE

Lice may be small, but they're a huge headache for families

Treating a lice infestation is exhausting and expensive. But after lots of hard work and outlays of cash, success can be as elusive as the insects themselves.

May 29, 2013|By Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times
  • While they may be a nuisance, lice are not considered a health hazard, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While they may be a nuisance, lice are not considered a health hazard, according… (Los Angeles Times )

The school health clerk took a comb and pointed to the near-microscopic bugs crawling up and down my daughters' scalps. I cringed.

Then she checked my head for the pesky parasites. I held my breath.

We had lice. Lots and lots of lice.

My youngest daughter scratched her head and started crying. Embarrassed, we headed home.

And that began the frustrating, icky, unending, exhausting, humiliating, disgusting battle against the bugs.

Parents across the nation are terrified of lice — not because they cause disease, but because even one minuscule egg has the power to keep children out of school and their mothers and fathers out of the office. And as I have learned over the last year, getting rid of lice is a nearly impossible — and expensive — job.

I recently asked a friend how many times her 8-year-old daughter has had lice. "I can't count," she said.

The six-legged, gray or brown insects survive on human blood. They cannot fly; instead, they crawl. Quickly. If I give my daughters a good night kiss and our hair touches, the lice can scurry from their heads to mine. And then they multiply.

While they may be a nuisance, lice are not considered a health hazard, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And schools differ on whether to exclude infested children from class.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a policy that says: "No healthy child should be excluded from or miss school because of head lice." The L.A. Unified School District doesn't turn children away if they have nits, or eggs. If nurses find live lice, they tell the parents to treat the problem before bringing their children back to school.

My daughters, however, attend school in South Pasadena, where the policy is much more strict. If there is any sign of lice, the child is sent home and cannot come back until the bugs and nits are gone.

Cathleen Hoadley, who works in the district's office of instructional services, said the goal is to stop the bugs from spreading across classrooms. "Knowing there is a live one on a kid's head is like playing with fire," said Hoadley, who also has dealt with lice as a parent.

At least a few times each year, my daughters come home with a piece of paper explaining Pediculosis capitis, telling parents that lice have been found in the classroom and advising all family members to be checked and treated if necessary.

As soon as we received our first diagnosis, I called a friend who gave me the phone number of a company that would send someone to my house and meticulously pick through our hair — for $90 an hour.

My husband and I hated to throw money at the problem, but my daughters would be banished from school, and I wouldn't be able to go back to work, until we were lice-free. (My husband was lucky enough to have escaped the scourge.) So we threw money at the problem.

As we three sat outside, a woman who called herself a "lice technician" picked through our hair with a special comb designed to catch even the smallest egg. Hundreds of lice ended up in bowls of water, drowning within seconds. We leaned in for a closer look.

But as the hours passed, I was less intrigued and more annoyed. In the end, I wrote a check for $350. She gave me a certificate saying the girls had been de-bugged.

Over the next day, I washed all the sheets, towels and comforters. I put the brushes and hair clips in the freezer. I vacuumed. I sent notes to friends whose children had been in our home. I thought back to the sleepovers, the play dates, the pretend hair salon games.

For several days, I kept picking through their hair and didn't see a single nit. And with that, I thought we were done with the little insects. But apparently they weren't done with us.

Two weeks later, they were back. This time we handled the nit-picking on our own. And for the rest of the school year, I pulled my daughters' hair back in tight braids. Somehow, some way, we managed to get by without another outbreak.

But I knew it was only a matter of time.

In 1785, Robert Burns wrote a poem titled, "Ode to a Louse," where he described how the "ugly, creepin" louse climbs onto the hair of a lady wearing a bonnet. "Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner," he wrote.

The lice also inspired the poets inside my daughters, who were 5 and 7 at the time: I have bugs in my hair. It's not fair.

This school year, we were more proactive. Before the first day, I combed through my daughters' hair carefully to make sure there were no signs of lice. I told them that no matter how excited they were to see their friends, they were not to hug them. No matter what.

By Thanksgiving, the girls were itchy again.

Determined to get rid of the lice quickly this time, we went to a new salon run by "The Hair Angels." The girls sat in pink chairs while people picked through their hair. Despite following their instructions closely, I found the lice were still there two days later.

Another few hundred dollars down the drain.

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