The Summer Our House Went Lousy

Warning: The following may cause itching

“Apparently, it’s really serious,” my husband said. He’d just come home from the gym, where he’d overheard some women talking about lice. “They’re calling it ‘super lice.’”

I looked up from my freshman’s scalp, where I’d been tediously picking nits (lice eggs) for an hour already. She, too, raised her eyes from beneath long straggles of wet hair, clipped awkwardly in every direction.

“No shit,” I said.

It was almost spring break, and our family had been infested since Christmas, when my third-grader—the youngest of our three children—brought it home from a sleepover. Unfortunately, it took us two weeks to discover she had pediculosis (lice), by which time it was already a thriving case—a couple of dozen nits, visible to the naked eye. We set straight to work to keep the little buggers from spreading. “I’ll get the heads,” I told my husband, “you get the beds.”

One after one, our family of five was treated with over-the-counter lice shampoo; beds were stripped; mattresses and carpets vacuumed; brushes sterilized; pillows and plush toys bagged; and the coat closet, too. We each took a turn parked in front of the television for the first of more nitpicking sessions than I care to count. (Yes, that’s where the term comes from.)

A week later we were in the clear. Then, two weeks later, we weren’t. This isn’t uncommon.

The drugstore products claim that while the shampoos kill the bugs, they can’t penetrate the nits to kill the larvae within. This means that if a single microscopic nit is missed during the picking process, the infestation will recommence. Once hatched, a louse will grow for seven to 10 days before it begins to lay eggs at a rate of six to 10 per day.

Studies from Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts say the parasites have become resistant to over-the-counter products such as Nix and Rid, which is why they’re being called super lice; and Shirley C. Gordon, an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University, says it takes them only three to five years to adapt to a new product.

But at the time, I didn’t know any of this. I was certain there was an epidemic at large, but that nobody was talking about it. As it turns out, there was no epidemic—it’s just that lice is a lot more common than I thought. Lice-infestation, according to the Mayo Clinic, is our second most common communicable disease—the common cold ranks first. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are between 6 and 12 million cases each year, although the American Academy of Pediatrics cautions that this is only a rough estimate, since lice is not generally reported to health departments.

I treated my youngest again and kept her in tight braids, just in case. Then, having finally cleared up the second infestation, we went about our lives. It would be another two weeks before I discovered what I had most feared: nits in my freshman’s very thick hair, and in my seventh-grader son’s, and in mine, too. “No more sleepovers!” I decreed. “No more play dates!” So, while I couldn’t fathom that we could still be dealing with our original case—not after all the shampooing, the laundry, the combing, the picking, the boiling and bagging and vacuuming—we were. I rolled up my sleeves. What else could I do?

• • •

By April, only my freshman was still infested. We cut her hair to facilitate the combing process. Lice live close to the scalp, where it feeds on blood several times a day, so haircuts are futile unless you shave within an inch of the head, which is what my husband did.

At this stage, we dispensed with the drugstore shampoos, which are essentially pesticides and not safe in multiple doses, if at all, and we began olive oil treatments. This meant saturating my daughter’s head, then covering it in a shower cap for her to sleep in overnight. The idea was to drown the effing things.

You see, lice can hold their breath for up to six hours—which is partly why the 10-minute over-the-counter shampoos are useless. Soon we were all olive-oiling. But four months—four months!—into the nightmare, the entire family still had lice.

I threw the mother of all fits—yanking sheets from beds, scouring with a vengeance. I made the kids sit for hours on wooden chairs that had long ago replaced our plush, easily contaminated sofas while I played momma monkey, picking and picking and picking. Our DirecTV bill skyrocketed.

When, two weeks later, we were still infested, I threw up my hands. Well, first I did another load of laundry, then I cried, then I hacked off my hair with a pair of kitchen scissors—then I threw up my hands.

In May, we finally visited the doctor, where we were prescribed a new shampoo, Natroba, which is said to kill the larvae in the egg and claims to be 88 percent effective. It cost nearly $300 a bottle. We needed four. Soon we discovered that we were among the 12 percent that Natroba would not cure.

I cried some more. And I itched.

“I’m sorry, Momma,” said my third-grader, “that I brought lice into the house.”

“Oh, Honey, it’s not your fault. Momma would hug you, but we don’t want the bugs to spread, do we?”

• • •

“Five months?” said Carrie Burts, a professional nitpicker with LiceDoctors, who came to our aid in June. She’d never heard of it lasting so long, but it didn’t surprise her—she’s well-acquainted with the superpowers of lice. The LiceDoctors, who operate in 26 states, say infestations are consistently on the rise; this year they’ve been called to treat two and a half times the cases they treated last year. “And they don’t call us until they’ve tried everything else.”

Summer is the busiest season. In 2011, the LiceDoctors saw a 117 percent increase in cases in July, over June; and August was up another 32 percent from that. It’s believed that the bugs reproduce more in the heat. Sleepovers and camps also play a factor. Airplanes and movie theaters are another source of contamination—but, more often than not, lice are spread via head-to-head contact. A few weeks before she came to minister to us, Burts had encountered the worst case she’d seen in eight years of nitpicking: a young girl frantic and screaming from the bugs that crawled down her forehead and face. “Hundreds of them!” Her mother had been battling the case for months, while also caring for a special-needs child and a new baby.

When Burts arrived, she insisted on treating everyone—although I told her that only my freshman and I were infested. Once again, there was olive oil, and a micro-grooved nit comb, which she swears, along with a follow-up plan of more olive oil, is the key to being lice-free. The LiceDoctors even guarantee it. In the process, Burts discovered two barely visible bugs on each of my younger two. Which means, had she not come …

We haven’t seen a nit in months, and I’ve finally caught up on laundry. To the kids’ glee, I’ve reinstated sleepovers. Still, I do routine inspections; I watch for scratching; and I itch regularly—as if tormented by ghost lice.

It’s psychosomatic, I know, but it doesn’t stop me from hauling out the olive oil, just in case.

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