A common belief about lice is that it is more likely to affect people living in unsanitary, poor, conditions, than those who live in shiny, clean, and more affluent neighborhoods. In fact, it was often thought that they were the only ones responsible for spreading the varmints around. For years now, the perception has been that this affliction is something that only happens to other (dirtier) people. However, in fact, some researchers believe that these tiny varmints actually prefer cleaner hair, because it becomes easier for them to attach to the hair shaft (an argument many children will try to use to their advantage when it comes to bathing time).
So, if it is not cleanliness alone that is responsible for sudden outbreaks across the country, then what are the exact causes? Any parent who has ever received a 'lice letter' from their child's school can answer that. They include
- sharing combs, brushes, or hair accessories
- Sharing hats or helmets
- Circle or story time
- Riding on the bus
That sounds like pretty much every activity in which your child may be currently engaged. However, children have always engaged in these activities. So, why do there appear to be so many more outbreaks now, than in the past? Researchers have some theories:
- One of the theories is that with both parents working, more children are in group-care situations than in past years. This provides more opportunities for lice to spread from one child to another.
- The other theory has to do with a growing resistance among lice to the prevailing treatments of the day. One of the more common ingredients in lice-treatment shampoos and kits is permethrin. This chemical has been shown to be ineffective in 50 to 90% of cases in a recent study. This drug-resistance makes it harder to stop an infestation on one child from turning into a school-wide epidemic.
The social stigma associated with a child having lice does not help matters either. Parents are desperate to avoid other children who are rumored to have been afflicted (though it doesn't seem to affect their children's interest in playdates at all) and, if their own child is found to be afflicted, it's simply mortifying. Some may ignore the problem completely, or even try to hide it.
The long gestational period further complicates matters. The implantation of eggs goes unnoticed. The eggs hatch into nymphs and then, into adult lice. Many experts put the incubation period at anywhere from ten days up to two weeks. That means you may not see anything moving around on your child's head for nine days, and think you're safe. Then, suddenly on the tenth day, you see a lice crawling across your kid's forehead.
So, what can a fearful parent do?
- Check your child regularly. If you're not sure how to go about it, ask your pediatrician or a school nurse. They would help you do preventive checks, and help you figure out how to get rid of the little buggers.
- Pay attention to letters that come home from your child's school. Sometimes schools will only send letters home to the parents of one particular class. However, if you hear about another class at your child's school being infested, start checking your child's head.
- Even in the absence of an active outbreak in your child's world, do not let him/her share anything that allows for head-to-head contact; not even for a minute!
- There are a number of shampoos and conditioners that claim to be lice-repellent. However, do not, under any circumstance, use lice treatment products on your child in the absence of a verified infestation. The active ingredients in most of the treatments are highly toxic pesticides. Unnecessary use or overuse is harmful to children, and is also blamed for the increasing drug-resistance of lice.
- After sleepovers, birthday parties, etc., wash your child's clothing/linens in the hottest water possible, and dry them on a high setting for 20-25 minutes. Seal anything that can't be dried, in a plastic bag for several days. If your child is invited to a sleepover, do a thorough check of his/her scalp. If you suspect the slightest chance of an infestation, do not send your kid.
Lastly, if the moment should come when you discover the dreaded things on your child, you have no option but to resort to this procedure: vacuum, bag, wash, comb, nitpick, inspect, repeat! Try to keep your composure. Yes, getting rid of an infestation of lice is a nasty, grueling, time-consuming, and irritating task. However, with the numbers increasing every year, chances are very good that your child will face an outbreak at some point or the other. Whether you're rich or poor, a cleanliness freak or a laissez-faire housekeeper, lice are coming. Be vigilant to make sure your child is not their next prey.