When talking with someone who haven’t seen for a while, it’s customary to be on the receiving end of the question, “What’s new?” within the back and forth of well-meaning chitchat. Giving an answer is always tricky to a question that is usually asked out of politeness. If you are sensitive you adjust your answer to your friend’s interests and do your best to avoid giving a play-by-play of the minutia of your family’s life.
For this reason, I am going to apologize in advance for talking about a topic that we are most comfortable hearing about in the context of a note from a school administrator. It involves a mildly traumatic experience that many families face that can send even the most well-organized household into a state of chaos.
It involves a four-letter word that strikes terror in the heart of any caregiver of school-age children. The word, of course, is lice. The scientific name for head lice is Pediculosis and these creatures are tiny, wingless insects that survive by feeding on human blood. They are most often found in the hair of children between the ages of 3 and 12.
Many unfortunate myths contribute to the embarrassment many people feel when they discover (or worse — have it brought to their attention by a school nurse) that their child is serving as a habitat and food source for a squadron of rapidly multiplying blood suckers.
When a diagnosis of lice is conformed, many people worry that their child will get an infection from too much head scratching. Another source of anxiety is the fear that the infestation will (or already has) spread to other family members. There is nothing like the power of suggestion of lice to trigger the uncontrollable urge to scratch your own head. But most of all, there is a concern that people might think that their child is somehow unclean and should be excluded from the social mainstream.
I know the shame that surrounds lice far too well. Fourteen years ago my husband and I were hosting our first dinner party. I had spent the week preparing and had scheduled a babysitter to watch my two young daughters so we could have a “grownup evening.”
Given that the capacity for moderation is not one of my strong suits, I factored a phone call informing me that my children had just spent a day playing in a lice-infested home into my dinner party preparation by deciding to destroy any possibility of lice with an intensity that bordered on psychosis.
After the phone call mysteriously caused my own head to itch uncontrollably, I frantically searched my toddler’s hair for evidence of nits (the white eggs that are laid on the hair shaft). She was not terribly cooperative because she has the most sensitive scalp known to man so the results of the examination were inconclusive, causing me to direct my focus to my baby girl who was recovering from cradle cap. Suffice it to say I found some small white indiscriminate bits of who knows what in her hair.
Page 2 of 3 - I stayed up until after midnight washing all the bedding in the house. I also disinfected all of the toys and accidentally fried all of our stuffed animals by putting them all in a dryer set on high heat, leading to complaints about the bears being “stiff” and “curly”.
I then went to CVS and bought multiple packages of every lice product on the shelves.
Today I cringe at the toxic chemicals (Lindane in particular — banned in Europe) I let sit on both girls’ heads for longer than the recommended period of time. Not once, but twice — just to be sure. I left it on my own head all evening because I did not have time for two showers. If only I had known it takes only 26 seconds for toxic materials to make it through the porous skin on our scalps directly into the bloodstream.
One of the scariest things about a confirmed lice infestation is growing evidence that leading chemical remedies are much less effective than they used to be as lice have adapted. Because lice are considered to be a nuisance rather than a health threat, there is little incentive for pharmaceutical companies to “up their game” and create more effective drugs.
The sad reality is that the best way to “cure” lice is a painstaking manual removal of lice at every stage in the life cycle from all infected surfaces and people. There is no quick fix to be had — even if you are about to host a dinner party.
So what is a busy family to do if a family member receives this dreaded diagnosis?
Camille Merian of Hingham, Mass. is one person to take the problem into her own hands. She runs a business called Close Nit Family, where she brings a small team to assist her in examining the home and family of the client who seeks to solve a lice situation. No toxic chemicals are used in lice removal.
The complete eradication of infestation is guaranteed with a follow-up visit five days later that is free of charge. The Close Nit team understands the potential embarrassment families feel and the sense of urgency that the delousing be effective.
After nipping the lice problem in the bud, I went on to host the dinner party I was determined must go on despite a potential lice infestation. When the babysitter brought my toddler downstairs for nighttime kisses, my daughter asked to perform a song she had “invented.” Our guests politely obliged. The lyrics were: “Chemicals, chemicals, chemicals go in our hair. Because WE HAVE BUGS.”
It was a great dinner party, but I’m pretty sure most of the guests left scratching their heads because of the power of suggestion. The funny postscript to this story is that my lice scare ended up being a false alarm.
Page 3 of 3 - Katherine Bennett is a Hingham, Mass. resident, mother of four and regular contributor to the Hingham Journal.