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What to Do When Your Child Gets Lice

I Spent Years Dreading the Day My Daughter Would Get Lice — and Then It Happened

I had just escaped from my kids, handing them off to my husband to take a few minutes to myself before the chaos of bath and bedtime began. The calm didn't last long. Five minutes later, he entered our bedroom and announced that our daughter had lice. "Are you sure?" I responded, hoping, of course, that the answer was no. "Look for yourself," he replied instead. I did, and yep, that definitely wasn't a case of dandruff. Those were bugs crawling around on my daughter's head.

Her lice took me by surprise (though is anyone really expecting it?). Months before, when I got notes home from school about cases reported in her classroom, or when her best friend's mom called to let me know her daughter and son, who had been in my carpool just that afternoon, were both lice-infected, I had braced myself for an impending doom that never came. I heard horror stories from my neighbor, mom to one of my daughter's classmates, about her whole family battling lice. At one point, she said, she was seriously considering shaving her own head just to ensure she'd gotten them all.

My own scalp immediately began itching, though my husband couldn't spot a single nit (weeks later, that phantom itching still happens every time I even think about the word "lice"), and I began picturing the long, complicated, and annoying process that ridding our family and home of lice would entail. I'm glad to say that although it was pretty annoying (never have my washer and dryer worked harder), we were able to defeat the lice — it ended up only affecting my daughter, who luckily had a mild case — within 24 hours. Here are six things I learned about lice and getting rid of it that I never knew. If your house comes down with a case, don't despair. You can vanquish those annoying bugs quickly and thoroughly.

  1. Lice are only passed through head-to-head contact. Head lice don't crawl, jump, or fly. The main way they spread is from close, prolonged head-to-head contact, and to a lesser degree, they spread through items that come into contact with an infected head, like brushes, hats, and (as our school found out last year) the helmets used in gym class.
  2. You'll almost certainly know them when you or your child gets them. When friends and classmates of my daughter's got lice, I checked her head obsessively, wondering if I was missing something. I wasn't. She was clear. When she actually did have lice, she complained about her head itching, and when we checked, it was pretty easy to spot a few bugs (they're called louse, are around two millimeters long, and are pale gray in color) crawling around on that head of hers. Because she's blond, the nits (tiny white or yellow eggs that attach to the hair with a sticky substance that holds them firmly in place) were harder to spot, but because of the bugs, we knew they were there.
  3. Lice don't live long off a head. Head lice only live with the aid of a scalp to feed on (gross, I know). Once they leave a head, they're usually dead in a day, two tops, so don't feel like you have to fumigate your whole house. Instead, focus on the things that have come in contact with your child's head over the past 48 hours (beds, brushes, hats and hair bands, towels, and clothing are the big ones).
  4. A laundry cycle will kill lice. Wash all bedding and clothing that's come in contact with the a lice-infested person in very hot water, then put it in the hot cycle of the dryer for at least 20 minutes, and you're golden. I continued to wash my daughter's pillowcases every morning for a few more days just to be safe.
  5. Isolate or clean items that can't be washed. You can put items like stuffed animals in a bag or simply isolate them from your child and you can be assured that they'll be lice free in a few days. Simply vacuum rugs, carpets, upholstered furniture, and your car. Hair items like brushes, hair ties, and headbands, you can either wash in hot water, soak in rubbing alcohol for an hour, or simply toss.
  6. Don't be afraid to call in the professionals. When I texted my neighbor who was threatening to go bald the previous year because of lice, she directed me to a nearby "salon" that focuses solely on removing lice. While the service wasn't cheap (because of my daughter's mild case, we opted for the shortest comb out, which was still around $150). However, they were able to remove almost the 55 nits that were still inhabiting my daughter's head after we used special lice shampoo and spent three hours combing out her hair the night before. We also bought a far superior comb than the one that came with the drugstore lice shampoo we'd used. After that one service, the lice were gone, so in my mind, it was definitely money well spent. We followed their comb-out advice and kept checking for the next few weeks, but thankfully, not a nit was found.
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