Lice—just the word makes my scalp itch. It’s a tiny bug that’s a huge inconvenience.
When I got the phone call, I was just sitting down to coffee with a friend. The school nurse told me a routine inspection of first-grade students had turned up lice in my son’s thick mop of hair.
What?! Just the night before, he had crawled into my bed after a bad dream. I had comforted him by combing my fingers through his hair and then tucked him back into his own bed with a kiss on top of his head. That same head where a colony of bugs had set up camp.
When I arrived at school, my son was waiting in the health room with a number of his buddies. Misery loves company, right? Apparently it was an epidemic of sorts, and nearly every boy in his class was being sent home.
I watched as the nurse used what looked like a chopstick to lift a chunk of hair off my son’s head and gasped when I saw the bugs, now exposed, running for cover.
Truly, sometimes the hardest part of parenting is keeping your cool.
Embarrassed, I grabbed the proffered paperwork and headed for home. Once there, I donned plastic gloves and glopped an oily treatment onto my terrified son’s head while I mindfully did not freak out.
Lice are parasites; they feed on human blood and require the heat of the scalp to incubate their eggs (nits). An adult louse only has a lifespan of a month, but they multiply quickly: a single female can lay six eggs each day.
Ten minutes passed as we talked about last weekend’s soccer game, the story he was writing at school, the weather—anything but the creatures on his head.
Fighting my gag reflex, I rinsed the now-dead bugs out of his hair, washed them down the drain, and used the special comb from the kit to pull out nits.
The indescribably tiny, white-yellow eggs stick to the hair shaft and have to be physically removed before they hatch. A single nit can start the entire cycle over, and searching for them is tedious but essential. Faced with an impatient 6-year-old, I opted for the next-best thing: I shaved his head.
Phase 1 was complete, but lice can survive off the human head for 24 hours.
Anything my son had been near needed to be vacuumed, washed in hot water, or tied up in garbage bags for the duration. The list was long: his bed, my bed, stuffed animals, hats, backpacks, couch pillows, his sisters.
I took no chances, and nearly everything we own was put into triage.
At the end of it all, the house was as clean as it has ever been. There were other perks. After 17 continuous loads of laundry, our aged washing machine gave out, and we bought a sparkly new set. And the kids learned a new word: quarantine.
Most of all, as I talked to friends in the aftermath, I realized I was not alone.
Lice is extremely common, especially among school-aged kids, and it does not mean my house or child is dirty. I heard stories of all kinds: a doctor visit for a rash that turned out to be lice; hours spent combing nits out of a daughter’s waist-length hair; a 2-hour drive and $500 bill for a trip to a lice salon.
Perhaps most importantly, I learned to pay attention to the all-too-frequent notices from school that lice is going around—again—and again. As Thomas Jefferson wisely said (although I’m pretty sure he wasn’t discussing lice), the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
Laura Baird is a Lake Country freelance writer and mom.