Let’s Destigmatize Head Lice…Who’s With Me?

I am tired. Bone tired. I’m collapsed on the couch with my dog, physically exhausted as I listen to the washer and dryer run tiredly on their 586th loads of the day while Criminal Minds plays in the background.

My daughters–4 and 5–were sent home from school with head lice yesterday. More than 24 hours later, we’re still recovering.

This is the third time we’ve had head lice, once in 2006, once in 2013, and now once again.

The first time, when I was 30, I was mortified. Experts and articles can tell you that head lice has nothing to do with cleanliness, but you take it personally. You beat yourself up. You want to make sure that nobody finds out because they might judge.

*Note: The 2006 epidemic, as best we could figure, started at Band Camp.

The second time, when I’d recently given birth to my third daughter, I was more philosophical. I knew my fourth grader showered daily, that her bed linens and closed were washed regularly, that we kept our house clean (if a little cluttered). We had to do multiple treatments, in large part because my daughter had (and has…more on that later) very long, thick blonde hair.

*Note: The 2013 epidemic was a long one…kids shared lockers in my daughter’s school, and her lockermate’s coat sat next to hers all day. Her lockermate’s family had a harder time getting rid of the lice than we did. Once my daughter got a new locker, the lice problem disappeared.

Until now.

I got called at work yesterday to go pick up my littles at daycare. I had to leave work, pick them up, begin the treatment. My husband washed the bedding and vacuumed. The kids cried when we shampooed their hair. We combed for hours and hours, and there were still nits.

My arms ached. My back was in agony from standing in one place for too long. I broke down and cried.

There were still nits.

I texted my boss and said I wouldn’t be able to be at work tomorrow because we hadn’t been able to complete the treatments.

I cried a bit more, then my husband and I drank beer and went to bed, both of us surreptitiously scratching our heads (that’s the thing about head lice, you hear it mentioned and you’re suddenly itchy…never mind that my husband is bald and my hair is chemically treated).

We woke up and formulated a game plan. It involved strategic placement of our children before, during, and after treatment with Nix Ultra (for Super Lice).

It involved laundering every article of clothing and piece of bedding, resulting in a huge mountain of laundry on our (previously cleaned) dining room table.

It involved treating our children with what’s basically poison, then shampooing it out with no conditioner, then combing through it for hours. My 4-year-old gets hysterical from sink shampoos. I combed my 5-year-old so hard that I made her back bleed. The dog wanted to engage in warfare with the vacuum cleaner. I had to call my sophomore’s school nurse and ask her to call my daughter out of class and check her hair, which went over like a lead balloon (no lice, though!).

It was hell.

If my daughters had a stomach bug, or the flu, or strep throat, or ear infections, I would have posted about it on Facebook. I would have told specifics to my colleagues so they knew I wasn’t missing work to trim my nose hairs. I would have had a day playing SuperMom, snuggling on the couch with my sick little darlings.

Instead, I had to essentially torture them and turn my house upside down. I told a few of my colleagues when I had to leave work midway through the day, and their discomfort was obvious. I know some people are squeamish about lice the way I am about snakes, so I tried not to take it personally, but it was hard.

There is a stigma around head lice that makes even those of us that know better get a little judge-y. Myself included.

So we made it through the day. There is no way any louse survived what we did. My kids and my husband were troopers.

My high schooler is cheerleading at a football game right now, my husband is at a concert, my little girls are sleeping in their extremely clean beds, and I am ruminating on the experience in my fog of physical and mental exhaustion. Also, I spent over $100 dealing with this lice mess.

What is it about head lice that makes people look down on others instead of sympathizing? It can’t be the ick factor…I’ve felt extreme empathy from others for getting thrown up on or staying up all night with a coughing child.

Since I’ve rambled this long, I guess I’ll give some advice for any of you stuck in the circle of hell that includes lice.

1. This stuff is magic:

That said, it is very difficult to comb through treated hair that can’t be conditioned.

Don’t treat, though, until you have a clean and sanitized place for children to go in so they don’t get reinfested before you even get started.

2. Wash bedding. All bedding. If pillows won’t make it through a washing and drying, buy a new pillow. It’s better than perpetuating the lice situation.

3. Throw away all hair elastics, headbands, scrunchies, and hairbrushes. You can sanitize hairbrushes by immersing them in boiling water for 15 minutes (and our dishwasher has a “sanitize” setting, so that’s another option), but throwing them away is the most effective.

4. Put stuffed animals, dress up clothes, hats, and anything else like that into the dryer for a full cycle. Alternately, use a sealed bag and don’t open it for three weeks.

5. Think outside the box about areas you need to treat–car seats, backpacks, jackets, bike helmets, the backs of toilet seats (I watched my 4-year-old pee and realized that her head was against the toilet lid), and so on.

6. Vacuum everything, everywhere. Floors, mattresses, chairs, couches, other furniture. Don’t vacuum the dog, though–pets don’t carry head lice.

7. Some people are lice targets. I know this because my high school daughter is one. She washes her hair twice a day. She uses a straightener and/or curling iron. Her hair is very long and very thick. It is also a dark blonde that makes nits and lice extremely hard to see. We treat her prophylactically on a regular basis so she doesn’t get lice.

If you ever have to deal with head lice, please know that you are not alone. It is not a reflection on you whatsoever. It does not mean that you, your house, or your kids are dirty. If it comes from camp or daycare, it does not mean that those places are dirty or sub-par (my daughters go to the premier day care in the area).

If you ever hear about someone else dealing with head lice, try to empathize. It is a huge physical, emotional, and financial strain. Leave a bottle of wine or a six pack on the front steps. Have a pizza delivered. Text funny memes. Be supportive.

If you ever hear someone making comments about people whose kids have head lice, stand up for them.

The time has come to de-stigmatize this very common problem that most have had a brush with (haha, see what I did there?).

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