July 3rd, 2009
02:18 PM ET

Heady advice on lice

By Andrea Kane
CNNhealth.com Producer

Pssst: Come here… A bit closer. I have a confession to make: One of my daughters has L-I-C-E. And it is driving me crazy, because it just will not go away, no matter how much I cut, comb and nitpick her hair. And I’ve been doing a lot of nitpicking lately – at times, I feel like a mama chimp grooming her child (minus popping the “prize” into my mouth). My daughter gets cranky having to sit there for an hour (especially when I pull an individual hair strand to remove an egg - aka: nit - that is cemented on) and I get cranky, too.

According to the CDC, there are an estimated 6 million to 12 million head lice infestations each year in the U.S. among children 3 to 11 years old. Lice are usually transmitted through direct head-to-head contact. Less commonly, they can be passed on via a hat, comb, pillow or other personal object (contrary to our worst fears, lice don’t dive-bomb from one person’s head to another’s). Cleanliness and socioeconomic status have little to do with getting head lice, although race may have an impact; African-Americans are less likely to get them.

Aside from being icky and itchy, head lice are not known to transmit disease (although hard scratching can cause a secondary infection). That said, you don’t want them hanging around.

Our “ordeal” started in mid-May when I stopped by the school nurse’s office for her to have a look-see because her two best friends had it (that, and she was scratching an awful lot). “You see right there - those are nits,” she said, pointing to what looked like a bitty grain of salt on the hair shaft.

The nurse instructed me to shampoo my daughter’s with an over-the-counter pediculicide (lice-killing) shampoo, then comb out all the nits because OTC shampoos do not kill all the eggs (only the heavy-duty, super-toxic, prescription shampoo does). The third step (after shampooing and nitpicking) is to delouse personal objects.

At the drug store, the choices were many: popular OTC shampoos (with either pyrethrins – derived from chrysanthemums - or their synthetic cousin permethrin), homeopathic treatments (that promise to kill lice without harsh chemicals), gels to help with the nitpicking– even an electric comb that electrocutes the lice.

I ended up buying the store brand, partially because it offered the most shampoo at the cheapest price (the shampoos are expensive and we are - except for my husband - a household of long, curly-haired females, so we needed quantity, especially since we didn’t want to skimp). I slathered it on my daughter’s hair, waited 10 minutes, then rinsed and, with a fine-toothed comb, I combed… and combed… and combed, trying to get all of the nits out. Have I mentioned that she has long curly hair? A lot of it? A thick underbrush of it? Well, it took a long time to through it all. Except that I didn’t get it all: We both grew impatient before I was done.

Then, I threw all of her bedding into the wash, boiled all the combs and hairclips, and quarantined her stuffed animals and brushes. And for good measure, my husband and I shampooed our hair and washed our linens (as luck would have it, there had been a thunderstorm the night before and we played musical beds). I also checked her sister’s hair: Nothing! Mom 1, lice 1.

The next day, the lice were gone. And for a few glorious days, I thought we had dodged a bullet.

With most of the OTC shampoos, you have to retreat between seven and 10 days after the initial treatment, when the eggs that the shampoo failed to kill the first time finally hatch and repopulate the hair - but before the nymphs can grow into adults capable of reproducing. The life cycle of lice is about three weeks.

But before we could get halfway to retreatment time, they were back. So I cut off six inches of my daughter’s hair and we tried another brand of OTC shampoo; this one did not work at all (lice can become resistant to a particular pediculicide). So I went back to the first shampoo and I bought the electric comb (which was pretty cool and did electrocute some lice, but apparently not all). When that failed, I tried the homeopathic shampoo that works by dehydrating the lice and their eggs (this one you have to leave on for at least an hour, instead of 10 minutes). At the time of each treatment, we washed linens, boiled hair accessories all over again. The stuffed animals never made it out of quarantine.

But still the lice returned.

After about a month, at wits end, I called my pediatrician’s office. The nurse on call told me I could try the prescription shampoo (did I detect hesitation in her voice or was that me projecting?) or I could try one more “weird” treatment. Since I wasn’t particularly excited about the prospect of using poison so close to my child’s growing brain, I chose the latter. She recommended “Dippity-do.” Yup: The pink or green hair gel popular in the ’50s and ’60s. (It now comes in other colors too.)

But, she warned, I’d have to wrap my daughter’s hair in plastic wrap and a shower cap and leave it on for 12 hours. Similar to other home remedies - like mayonnaise and olive oil - the idea is to smother the lice in a thick coat of glop. The advantage of Dippity-do over the oily foodstuff is that it is much easier to wash out of hair (and doesn’t stink like unrefrigerated mayonnaise).

If this doesn’t work, I’ll be tempted to pull out the big guns: No, not the prescription shampoo but the electric razor – and give my daughter a buzz cut.

Have you or a family member had lice? How did you finally defeat it? Did using harsh chemicals on a small child worry you?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

Filed under: Caregiving • Children's Health • Parenting

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.