Many of us have been here: A "my head is itchy" comment from the grade schooler. A sighting of little bugs scrambling on your child's head in the bath. The note home from school.
These critters are among the scourges of childhood, a threat to otherwise sane parents who turn into lice-checking fiends, picking and combing, washing and quarantining, itching and scratching (even if they, themselves, are lice free) for days.
And here's the sad fact: We're moving into high season.
As the summer turns to the school year, kids who picked up the varmints from summer camps are passing them along to their friends. And so it goes.
But the experience, says Brittany Wilcher, doesn't have to be horrible. The Durham mom runs the Georgia-based Helping Hands Lice Removal service here in North Carolina. Her job is to travel across the Triangle, picking lice out of people's heads and calming a lot of nerves. She's seen it all - torment, tears, tantrums from both the parents and the kids.
She also fields questions free of charge on the business' hotline. Parents can call with questions and opt to take care of the lice themselves or call in Wilcher for backup.
It's a weird job, she acknowledges, but it got her through college and she really enjoys helping families along what she calls "this crazy journey." She started six years ago and, for the record, has not gotten lice from any of her patients.
"There is that helpless feeling if you haven't had to deal with head lice before," said Wilcher, who also teaches part time at the Duke School. "You don't know what to do, where to start."
A super lice invasion of North Carolina was in the news last month, but as Wilcher said and I've reported before, they've been here for a while now. Super lice are resistant to common over-the-counter treatments that have been used for years to get rid of them.
Wilcher, who is 26, remembers her mom struggling for six months to kill all of the lice from Wilcher and her brother's heads, using the Rid product, 16 years ago. She started seeing lice more and more when she began working with preschoolers at the age of 18.
"My phone is blowing up right now, asking questions about super bugs," she said. "These super bugs have been around for like five years now."
Here's her message to parents: Calm down. It's going to be OK. If your child has lice, you will be able to get rid of them. If a friend has lice, there are ways to prevent an outbreak. And if your kids are in school, there are ways to keep them from getting a full-blown case.
Here are Wilcher's tips:
Wet head checks
Invest in a good lice comb. She likes one called The Terminator, which is an all metal comb. And then do wet head checks each week and after any sleepover. Take a few minutes after a bath or shower and comb through your child's wet hair with the lice comb. The comb will pull out telltale signs if you have an outbreak. If you are seeing bugs or are finding brown or whitish things attached to the hair shaft as you comb through the hair, you've probably got lice. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website has pictures and detailed information about lice).
It's best to do these checks with a wet head, Wilcher said, because the bugs can more easily run from you when the hair is dry. If you find something, go out and get a treatment and follow the instructions.
Wilcher prefers only all-natural treatments such as The Fairy Tale brand, which super lice are still vulnerable too. She even suggests that parents have it ready at home. Continue combing through the hair every other day until they stop scratching or you stop pulling out evidence.
If you're doing weekly comb throughs and catching outbreaks immediately, it will be a lot easier to kill them all, Wilcher said.
Wilcher also recommends following up with another treatment a week to 10 days after the original one.
Some major don'ts
"We never recommend any kind of pesticide product because these super bugs are immune to it already," she said. "When my mom dealt with it in fifth grade, even then, Rid wasn’t working."
Still, if you feel compelled to use a pesticide-based product, Wilcher says parents must follow the directions exactly.
"Don't leave it on any longer than it suggests because it can cause burns," she said. "If you're going to choose to use a product like that, be cautious."
Never keep anything in the hair overnight, she said. And never, ever wrap a child's head in something, like a plastic bag or plastic wrap, overnight for treatment. Earlier this year, an 18-month-old child died after her head was covered in mayonnaise and wrapped in a plastic bag overnight to treat for lice. She suffocated.
We've experienced some head lice in my house and, thanks to my husband's very diligent nitpicking and Vamousse, which was developed here in the Triangle, we've been able to combat it.
Nitpicking, Wilcher said, "can be the answer for some people to just go through strand by strand." But it's not necessary to do it daily after a treatment, she said. And it's not always an option for parents with poor eyesight or in a home without good lighting. (We attach a desk lamp to a kitchen cupboard to get the best lighting possible).
Wilcher said a really good lice comb will come in handy here. In fact, Wilcher doesn't recommend daily nitpicking if you're using a good lice comb and have applied a product to get rid of the critters.
"I recommend giving it 7 to 10 days to not do anything," she said. "Any product can be very drying to the scalp. You have to understand that your scalp goes through so much when you have head lice. Bugs bite like mosquitos. Products, combing can be damaging. They are going to be itching, but don’t do anything for a seven to 10 day period."
Maybe you did everything exactly right, but three or four weeks later, they've returned. Wilcher said that doesn't mean you did anything wrong.
"Sometimes it’s not the case of what you did wrong, it could be where your child is going back to - whoever they contracted it from in the first place," she said. "In that time period, they contracted it back from that person and the case progresses and you finally notice it. ... Be confident in yourself that you can do this. But know that [it could be coming from] the group they hang out with - carpool, school, afterschool."
Start spreading the news
"There’s a big shade when it comes to having head lice and admitting it," Wilcher said. "I don’t understand that stigma that’s attached to it. It's not like they like clean hair vs. dirty hair. They don't like hair that has a lot of oil-based products in it."
When we had a case of head lice in my house, I started emailing friends and people that we came in contact with to let them know. I got several emails back from moms, thanking me for the notifications. That's exactly what all of us should be doing, Wilcher said.
"If you are dealing with head lice, it’s best for you to address other people around you," she said. "Just let them know. If your child did give it to them, you would want a heads up if the roles were reversed. It protects you from your child getting it back again."
Don't kill yourself cleaning
When lice are found, you should focus about 90 percent of your effort on the actual treatment of the head and about 10 percent of your effort on cleaning up any lice that might be around the house, Wilcher said.
"Your head is the only place they can feed from, the only place they can lay their nits," she said. "They are very reliant on the heat from your scalp. That’s why they are glued to hair shaft."
In other words, you don't need to detail the entire house.
Do wash bedding - sheets, pillow cases, blankets - as you normally would. Don't worry about the mattress or pillow.
In the winter months, do wash jackets, hats and scarves as you normally do. You can put hats in the dryer on high heat for 30 to 45 minutes and they should be fine, Wilcher said.
Do clean out hair brushes. And put hair accessories like ties and bows in a plastic bag. Freeze it over night and they should be fine in the morning.
"Extreme heat and freezing will sanitize items for you," she said.
Don't feel like you need to vacuum of your house. You don't need to bag up every stuffed animal for a two-month quarantine - a 48-hour period is fine for items that your child came in contact with while they had lice.
If you feel like your sanity will improve by vacuuming a couch or chair where your child has been, go for it, Wilcher said.
There are products out there aimed at preventing head lice, which Wilcher says work. She, again, prefers the Fairy Tale brand, but recommends anything you might spray on the hair instead of a shampoo or conditioner.
"The scent is what is preventing the head lice coming to the head," she said.
Tea tree oil and rosemary are good scents that lice hate. She also suggests mint. If you don't feel like shelling out $10 for a bottle of lice prevention spray, Wilcher suggests this method: Mix equal amounts of Listerine mouthwash and water in a spray bottle. Use only the mint kind - peppermint or spearmint, for instance. If the scent is too strong, she said it's OK to add a bit more water. Then spray on your kids' heads.
Other prevent tips:
- If your child shares a locker or cubby with a classmate, instruct your child to stuff his jacket, hat and scarf into his backpack to avoid picking up any lice.
- Make sure kids know not to share hair ties, hats, combs, brushes and other items that might touch their head. That extends to family members too.
- Get your own sports gear, like batter's helmets, for instance, so the team shares only after-practice snacks, not lice.
And here's a tip for older kids: Encourage them to stop taking head-to-head selfies with each other.
Wilcher had one mom who held up her daughter's cell phone, which was littered with selfies with friends, during a treatment and announced, "This is how you got it."
Wilcher is bracing herself for more scenes like that with school in session and jacket season coming.
"I have parents that call me all the time crying because mom is just done," Wilcher said. "That’s where I try and change the subject for a couple of minutes. Let’s calm down and look at this from an outside perspective. It calms parents down when you’re listening to what they’ve been doing."
Customers often note her long, curly, thick hair that reaches her waist and wonder how she's stayed lice free. Wilcher said she just practices what she preaches - using a lice comb to comb through her own hair when she's out of the shower. (She always pulls it up before she does any treatments).
"It gives parents confidence. It’s not that big of the deal," she said of her own lice-free long hair. "I love my hair. It’s long and I don’t get it."
Wilcher is happy to field your questions. Helping Hands' website has the details.