December 17, 2008


Film Guy once described the lifestyle in our household as "communal." Usually, that's a good thing. Our couch is always piled with kids (or young adults, you might call some of them), and on weekends, the floor is strewn with sleeping bodies. Any of the kids will just grab a pillow or blanket, and find a spot on the couch or floor. When the kids play Ultimate, they bring a pile of black shirts and white shirts to the field with them, and every time they choose teams, everyone switches shirts. We have shelves and hooks in the laundry room filled with warm clothing, too, that are used by anyone going outside in winter weather. With so many kids and extras, it makes sense to share.

When I found head lice on With-a-Why, the communal aspects of our life seemed suddenly ominous. When I tried to think of every place my youngest son's sweet head had been, I felt overwhelmed.

A reader asked, "Did you have to wash all his bedding?" Um, yeah. We had to wash EVERY PIECE of bedding in the ENTIRE house. My husband piled sheets, pillowcases, blankets, and quilts into his car and spent the evening at the laundromat. I took any decorative pillows that didn't have cases on them, put them in a big trash bag, and stuck them out in the garage, figuring that the frigid temperatures would eventually kill any lice. I don't know how long I need to leave them there, but likely, I'll forget about them altogether and find them in the spring. With hoodies and winter coats, we followed the "20 minutes in a clothes dryer" rule of thumb.

I've spent the last couple of days checking the scalps of every person who walks into the house: the little neighbor kids, the teenage boys, my parents. It's amazing how quickly we've all gotten used to this basic primate behavior. Everyone will be sitting by the fire, talking like usual, and I'll just walk over, hunker down like a chimp, and start inspecting Shaggy Hair's scalp. First Extra even asked me to check his scalp, "I felt itchy as soon as I heard." When the boys were playing a card game, I took the opportunity to probe their scalps with my fingernails. None of them even looked up. Checking for nits has become socially accepted behavior.

Somehow, incredibly, the lice has not spread past With-a-Why. Given the way we live, this seems miraculous. Thankfully, because he's the baby of the family, With-a-Why still asks me to comb the tangles out of his long hair in the morning: otherwise, I would never have caught the lice in time.

Killing the lice was the easy part. I slathered half a jar of mayonnaise on With-a-Why's head, gave him a plastic wrap turban, and topped that off with a washable winter hat. He looked so cute with all the hair off his face. Boy in Black, who was playing a game with him to keep him busy, said, "That smell makes me want a sandwich." But the mayonnaise worked, and the lice were smothered to death. (Since then, I've found that olive oil can also be used as a smothering agent. It probably smells better. But the mayonnaise does have the advantage of being easy to slather on. It doesn't drip, and I was able to pile all that hair on the top of his head and make it into cool sculptures before adding the plastic wrap.)

The harder part has been removing the nits — the translucent little eggs that cling tenaciously to the strands of hair. I measured With-a-Why's hair, just so I could get the credit I deserve for this task. It's 22 inches long. He has dark silky hair, very fine in texture, but lots and lots of it. Apparently, that's just what a louse looks for in a home. I have spent hours and hours combing nits out of that hair. Literally. And I am going to have to keep checking his head every night for weeks to make sure I've gotten them all.

Boy in Black keeps looking up facts about lice on the internet. Some are helpful: "You need a metal fine-tooth comb, not a cheap plastic one." He was right: the metal comb was way more effective. And I was hugely relieved when he reported that cats do not catch head lice from humans. I had already imagined putting each cat in the dryer for twenty minutes.

Red-haired Niece, who works at Ridiculously Expensive Pre-school in Big City Like No Other, reported that all her kids have had lice, and that lice don't like the smell of lavender. I rooted through my stash of essential oils for lavender, and soon all my teenage boys smelled nicer than they've smelled in a long time. And when we finally washed all the mayonnaise out of With-a-Why's hair, it was smooth and silky and beautiful. Apparently, all that gunk is really a beauty treatment.

So mostly, that's how I've spent the last few days. I've been going over and over With-a-Why's hair with a fine-tooth comb. I've been checking the scalps of all of our extras. I've been trying to train everyone in the house by showing them nits on With-a-Why's hair so they will know what they are looking for. And I keep making people check my scalp, since I am the person mostly likely to have caught the lice. When my daughter arrived home on Monday afternoon, I met her at the train station. "Hey, welcome home! Want to check my head for lice?"


liz said...

And now MY scalp itches. "Lice," it's a trigger word.

Rev Dr Mom said...

Really, just reading about lice makes my head itch.

In that awful kindergarten year, after three rounds of RID I finally resorted to an oil I bought at an herbalist shop. The oil probably worked like the mayo (which I never heard of using) and the smell (which wasn't bad) was supposed to repel the lice (maybe it had lavender in it).

kathy a. said...

what do you do with the nits when you comb them out? when we lived in the deep south, i used to comb the cats in much the same way [metal comb with small teeth], and plop those fleas into a little dish of rubbing alcohol.

my kids didn't have lice, but just the report of someone in their class having them sent everyone into a frenzy of washing everything, hair inspections, sequestering favorite stuffed animals, etc. i like your portrait of louse control as a communal activity much better than the "every family freaks for itself" model. ;)

Ellen said...

We have a very communal family too. When my son got head lice - I got it because he lays his head on my shoulder each night before he goes to bed. It just wreaked havoc on our apartment. You are supposed to leave stuff in tied garbage bags for two weeks...although I did it for a month because I couldn't face washing everything I bagged.

I'm sorry that you had to go through that - and very sorry that your beautiful little boy went through it too.


Sarah Sometimes said...

Only you could make the search for and expunging of head lice sound like a rewarding family experience. :)

I especially liked B-in-B's comment about wanting a sandwich. And your relief at not having to put the cats in the dryer...

BlackenedBoy said...

With-a-Why is lucky to have such a patient mother.

Twenty-two inches is crazy! The longest mine got was seventeen inches.

When my faher got lice as a child in the 1970's, he had to shave his head.

I have thankfully been able to avoid headlice.

I'm glad that the experience has managed to bring your family even closer together. True to form, you've taken something that would drive most people crazy and turned it into a positive.

Jenevieve said...

"I had already imagined putting each cat in the dryer for twenty minutes."

Ha! As an proto-vet, I can safely say that dryers are contraindicated for both lice AND cats. :)

Busymomma66 said...

Ok--my head itches.

Thank you for all the advice tho--so when/if it hits I'll know where to come. It's going through my daughter's school.

Silver Creek Mom said...

Tea tree oil works well at repelling lice too. I used it for years after my daughter had a really bad case just before she started Kindergarten. She caught it from kids at Sunday School.

You caught it early. I did not and it was NOT FUN! The love clean hair too.

Dawn said...

I'm going through the same thing with my five year old. Pretty gross. I agree that the metal combs are way better than the plastic ones. No one else in our house has gotte lice from her, thank goodness. I itch every time I think about it.

YourFireAnt said...

Well, if you're coming to my house for your sabbatical, I'm checking your head at the door.


dance said...

was able to pile all that hair on the top of his head and make it into cool sculptures

How could you resist the urge to take pix? Though I can see maybe it's not the moment to be posting such. I hope WaW isn't feeling embarrassed, though you make it sound so convivial.

Anonymous said...

When we got lice last summer (my daughter and I), we were advised to wash ALL bedding in the house EVERY day until we found no more nits. Also to vacuum couches, etc. every day.It was a total pain, but appeared to work (though now I am itching again, having read your post...). The problem is that if you even miss one nit, the repopulation is quick from the hatched animal (well, I guess it does take two...).

Anyway, supposedly vinegar for five minutes, then rinsing out and using a hair dryer (on hot) before nit-picking helps release the glue that holds the nit to the hair shaft, and makes them easier to get off.

Hope the process is over soon!!!

--Neighbor Lady

p.s. We still have bags of stuffed animals in the basement because I can't quite make myself put my hands into them and pull them out, much less putting htem back on the beds...

pps Suddenly, everything starts to look ominous...headphone stations at school, cute piles of winter coats at the lunch table, pin the tail on the donkey at birthday parties(those shared blindfolds!)....I could go on, but I have revealed enough of my neuroses already!!

Marni said...

We started using Tea Tree Oil on Bug's hair when/if she gets them. The smell is horrible, but the lice run.

I feel ya on the nit picking. I would take Bug's hair in one inch sections, look at each strand for nits and then twist it and bobby pin it. She looked like Pin Head when we were done.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

My mom tells a story about a mayo treatment she used on my dad's hair when they lived in Hawaii -- I can't remember what it was supposed to cure; maybe it was lice -- and EVER SINCE THEN, my dad has had greasy hair. It's so greasy that we never had 'decorative pillows' because they'd get gross.

So! Be warned!

(On the other hand, my word verification is 'ignor')

Anonymous said...

My lice story:
4th of July weekend.
Girl Scout camp.
78 cases.
Yes, 78.
We divided the staff into "nit pickers" "washers & baggers" (dispatched to 8 different laundromats) "RID searchers" (dispatched to towns all over the two state area in search of Rid), and "non-contact play supervisors"

It was insane.
We did 2 weeks bagged up (on the stuffed animals and down sleeping bags that couldn't be washed) with lavender in the bag with them. Imagine an entire lineup of bags with dates on them sitting on the loading dock for the freaked out mamas to take home after camp.

I seriously doubt any of the children went home with the same clothing that they arrived to camp wearing.

Anjali said...

Lice is rampant in my girls' school right now. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that with one day left before holiday break, we've escaped it. But I'm still checking heads every night just in case.

I'll have to bookmark this post, though, for the future and be sure to keep mayo in the house!

Jody Reale said...

Nice post! Makes me glad I wrote the book on lice (seriously.) If you'd like one, maybe to give away to one of your readers, for example, just email me at jody at jody reale dot com.

kathy a. said...

i vote for PPB, for best lice story ever. wow.

Anonymous said...

Please can I come and live with you? Even your treatment of the lice problem feels warm and loving!

Anonymous said...

I may have the most dramatic story, but I was a wash and bagger, not a nit picker. I think I would still be in serious therapy had I been nit picking. I think joe wins for combing through all that long hair!

justin said...

OMG ... nits! Every parent's nightmare. We have four daughters, and when they were young children, we shared a large house with another family, with two more girls ... so we were on the look-out for nit invasions, and had to treat all the girls several times with lotion bought from the chemist.

The mayo idea is a brilliant ... I haven't heard of this one before.

In my time as a family doctor working at a student health centre, one of my worst (really sickening) experiences was treating a woman with long hair done up in a bun ... the hair was moving ... a seething mass of nits.
She had hardly noticed anything ... just mild itchiness in her scalp.

jo(e) said...

I agree that ppolarbear wins for the best lice story. What a nightmare!

Although reading Justin's story -- and imagining that woman with the bun full of nits -- is making my scalp itch ....

Kathryn said...

They are so prevalent in Gloucestershire schools that there is talk of a new variety, the Gloucestershire Super Nit, which is resistant to practically everything.
For years, if anyone ANYWHERE had lice, the Dufflepud got them and passed them on to me...However, the received wisdom here is less about washing bedding etc, just brushes and combs...and we used a lovely herbal shampoo with geranium and tea tree which smelled so nice that we went on using it anyway. Maybe we're past that phase now, but I wouldn't want to bank on it...

Julia said...

There was an infestation in school last year. Monkey had a nit found in the school check. They emailed all parents to say there is an infestation, and then those of us whose kids had them found got separate emails with instructions. The school-wide one emphasized new research that says lice like clean hair, not dirty as is common wisdom. The individual ones gave instructions based on whether it was a nit found or a louse. The nit treatment we were to do was all about olive oil, at prescribed intervals several days apart, the last one being 21 days past the first. All I ever found in all those rounds of oil was one lousy (ha-ha, I slay me!) nit.
When I first read the email, I was not looking forward to the metal comb through tightly-ish wound curls on Monkey's head. Turns out olive oil makes it a breeze. Wheew!
Hooray for you for all the work your commune required. Hope there is a communal appreciation of some kind coming your way...