In the war against nits, there are few allies and plenty of blame to go around

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK Photo:

After weeks of hot summer weather, parents should be readying themselves for the inevitable onslaught of head lice, those pesky parasites children inevitably attract, the mere thought of which can make your skin crawl.

Plenty of myths about lice abound. They can't jump or fly, they don't have a gender preference, they don't prefer clean hair and they're not some kind of indicator of poverty or poor hygiene. 

Even the most glamorous can get hit with a nit. A few years ago, supermodel Heidi Klum appeared on The Ellen Show proudly declaring herself "lice-free now", after a family infestation. And British TV style arbiter Susannah Constantine has confessed to battling nits for three years after they were discovered by a revolted colourist who gasped, while doing her highlights, and "needed a minute" to recover. (Klum eventually had a business called The Nit Fairies come to her home to deal with the infestation, while Constantine paid £200 to have her hair specially hoovered and her egg-laden scalp blasted with hot air.)

Last year, I got head lice myself. My kids caught them over summer, and I was awake at 4am, driven mad by the notion that tiny creatures were sucking my blood. I fervently hoped I had delusional parasitosis (mistakenly imagining I had head lice) or that it was just a severe case of itchy scalp that Pantene could solve. But my fears were confirmed when my husband found an egg.

I was horrified, exhausted from lack of sleep and desperate for the haircut I'd had to cancel. The kids, who I had diligently combed and treated, were both highly amused that I now had them too and concerned that I would give them back to them. My husband was blasé, which frustrated me. To him, they were a fact of life, a mere annoyance. Yet he didn't have them, and wasn't hot-washing sheets and pillowcases several times a week.

Worst of all, before I even discovered the kids had them, we also gave them to a visitor, a retired teacher. In several decades of teaching at a primary school, she'd never had them, but she caught them from us.

It took endless sessions of combing and checking, and several weekly treatments of 4% dimethicone lotion – a pesticide-free substance that suffocates the lice and is available free for under-13s on prescription - to be sure the infestation was over.

At one point it seemed impossible to break the cycle, thanks to cuddles, stories and the kids' nightly bed-hopping routine. Few parents would find it in their hearts to deprive their child of this closeness, regardless of lice. I did, however, insist the kids bring their own pillows with them if they came into our bed.

Once it was over, it was easier to be philosophical about the whole experience. It was a parental rite of passage, I decided. Because surely if I'd had them, plenty of other mums and dads had, too. "It's the perils of small child proximity," said a sympathetic mum-of-three who also got them that summer.

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It is more common for kids to get head lice and nits (the eggs) because they tend to have much more physical contact with each other, says dermatologist Dr Louise Reiche. She has treated the occasional adult who has contracted head lice from public transport or from sharing pillows, combs or hats. But the usual way grown-ups get it is from being in close contact with children.

"It's hugging kids, really," says Hamilton pharmacist Fhazeel Hasan. "It's hair to hair contact, not hats and so on."

Last year, Hasan acquired the local area licence for Lice Clinics New Zealand. Its FDA-cleared device AirAllé claims to kill any lice and 99.2 per cent of the eggs with a dehydrating heat treatment. It is suitable for anyone aged five and over but Hasan reckons 60 per cent of their Lice Clinics customers are adults.

Michele Dillistone, who treats clients in a private room at Hasan's NorthCare Pharmacy in Te Rapa, NZ, says they see a huge range of people: "Aunts, teachers, university students, teenagers, boarding school students."

Like Constantine, Claire* learned she had head lice when her hairdresser discovered a live louse in her hair. It turned out she had caught them from her five-year-old. The hairdresser said it was "very common" to see parents come in with nits. "She was very nice, and just said she couldn't continue."

The Wellington mother-of-three told "heaps" of people, although she refrained from posting about it on Facebook. "It was mortifying but it was also pretty funny, too. Most people just laughed really, or shared when they had had them."

NZ expat Rebecca* was in a high-level meeting in London when she felt something crawling in her head. "My two kids had caught nits and I was worried I had them, too. I had to escape to the bathroom for a major scratch. I felt like Sarah Jessica Parker in I Don't Know How She Does It."

Your Weekend polled 28 NZ families and found that 79 per cent of them had experienced head lice. Almost a third said they or their partner had caught nits, and in the past three years, just over half had had them two to four times. 

But despite how commonplace nits are, people still tend to keep shtum about it. It's not just embarrassing; there's a lot of anger out there over the seemingly relentless battle against head lice, and who is to blame.

Check any parenting forum and you'll find frustrated families who feel their efforts to treat their children are in vain when their kids immediately catch another bout. They are mad at other parents who apparently do nothing.

Leaving your child untreated is "an issue of lack of basic care" and "social services should be arranging a visit," fumed one parent on UK website Mumsnet.com. Another was even more succinct: "It really f*cks me off that some lazy arses cannot be bothered to check". 

Last year, a post on Wellington Live's Facebook page asked who should be responsible for getting rid of nits. It drew some hot-headed debate and more than 300 comments. Many said schools should be checking kids. Others called for the return of the nit nurse and slammed 'lazy parents'.

Yet treating head lice properly is time-consuming and often tricky to get right. Humans have put up with head lice for millennia, but in the past few decades, these parasites appear to have developed resistance to many of the chemicals used to treat them. An extensive US study in 2016 found that 98 per cent of head lice – so-called Super Lice - had developed resistance to most over-the-counter remedies.

While most of the families we talked to said it took one to two weeks to get rid of lice, one father said it took his family four months, due to re-infection from other schoolchildren. "Each year, for the last three years, [we] just treated constantly until the season was over."

Reiche says outbreaks of head lice appear more common now than they did four decades ago. Drug resistance, more relaxed lifestyles and health policies have all played a part. Schools no longer line kids up for checks – which were often public and humiliating, notes the Ministry of Education.

It's now up to parents to check their kids regularly and to let the school know if they find anything. Many schools still work with public health nurses when there is a school-wide infestation.

Smothering the hair in conditioner, and going over the entire scalp fastidiously with a fine-toothed comb, is the best and cheapest method, says Reiche. Wipe the comb with a tissue after each stroke to check for lice and eggs. This needs to be done every couple of days but ideally daily, for at least 10 days, to break the cycle between laying the eggs and hatching them.

Reiche knows this can be labour intensive. "Small children aren't always very co-operative and some parents simply feel that they do not have the time to do all that".

In that case, she says, get some dimethicone or similar head lice potion. Make sure you do the repeat treatments and treat the whole household.

Head lice are irritating and itchy, but ultimately they do not spread disease. Yet there can be a lot of desperation out there. Reiche has seen patients so distressed because of itching or even the stigma that they have used insecticides or kerosene that have resulted in bad burns or severe allergies. Others scratch so much they develop scabs.

Hasan sees "a lot of parents, mums" at their wits' end, too. As a pharmacist, his first recommendation is daily combing with a lice comb and, if that doesn't work, using nit shampoos.

But for some, the AirAllé offers a chemical-free, convenient solution, particularly if it is an ongoing problem. The $140 session includes around 30 minutes of heat treatment. A disposable, plastic attachment that looks a bit like a head massager is systematically placed around the whole scalp. The hair is also combed out using conditioner and soaked in dimethicone.

Patients are guaranteed to be lice free when they are leave, but if they come into contact with someone with head lice, of course, they could soon be re-infected.

As for my family, we've been nit-free for almost a year, thanks. It's almost a happy ending, yet we are always on alert for another itch, another scratch. Our lice crisis is over, but we check regularly, comb thoroughly and wait.

* Names have been changed

Your Weekend