As I look back, how could I have not known I had lice? I awakened one morning with such a feeling of my hair being on fire that I could have been a member of the 9/11 Commission. The flames seemed to burn from the nape of my neck to my ears. I spent all day scratching and, that night, asked my daughter to look at my scalp for a rash. “I don’t see a rash, but I think I see things moving.”
Why would I have something moving in my scalp? I knew my daughter didn’t have lice because I had checked her regularly since she came home a month ago from a sleepover with a friend who, she told me, had lice (admittedly, I didn’t know what I was looking for because I didn’t want to know). After I itched intensely for a few days, I went off to the dermatologist. I mentioned, as an aside, that my daughter thought she saw life-forms on my scalp, but the doctor gave me a cursory look and said no, what I probably had was an autoimmune disorder. If that’s what it was, I would have it the rest of my life, and to control it, I needed to apply topical steroids. At least it wasn’t lice!
I filled the prescription and began dousing myself. It turns out the louse responds to steroids the same way that Barry Bonds does: It becomes bigger and more powerful. Itching and dousing, I packed our bags for an extended vacation at bed and breakfasts in Maine. A few days into our trip, the lice load must have finally gotten to our 10-year-old daughter, who previously had had no symptoms. We were in the living room of the B&B, when she stuck a fingernail into her scalp, pulled out a tiny, disgusting creature, and said, “Every time I stick my finger in my head, I get one of these.”
“We were just walking in the woods, it probably fell on you from a tree,” said my husband, flicking it away. I concurred that it was nothing, then scratched my own head frenetically. Yes, we sound like nitwits. My excuse is that the lice had sucked so much blood from my head that I was losing mental function. My husband now admits he thought our vacation would be much more pleasant if his wife and daughter didn’t realize they had parasites.
The next day over breakfast, while our hostess was out of the room, our daughter stuck her finger back into her head and pulled out another creature. “I haven’t been in the woods, and look at this!” she demanded. “If you dig deep enough into anyone’s scalp, you’re bound to find things with legs,” my husband said. This remark was so profoundly cockamamie that it got my attention. I had noticed a magnifying glass in our hosts’ living room. After breakfast, my daughter pulled another creature out of her head and we all looked at it through the glass. It was an eighth-of-an-inch-long insect. I now know that each of its six legs was tipped with a tiny claw, which allows the louse to hang on to human hair as it lays its eggs and drinks our blood. It was perfectly clear that my daughter and I were hosts, too. I tried to cheer myself up that the lice had cured my autoimmune disorder. We retired to our bedroom with the magnifying glass, and I examined my husband’s head. His scalp, deforested as if by Agent Orange, was clearly incompatible with insect life.
Having lice is bad enough, but what is the etiquette of traveling while infested? This dilemma also came up with a friend of mine who was visiting relatives with husband, toddler, and infant. They all had been itching for weeks, but had been, like me, deep into lice denial. She had variously decided the symptoms meant she was pregnant, her husband had a skin disease, and the toddler had a tic (although not a tick). The truth became clear when she glanced down at the head of her infant, snuggling on her chest in his Babybjörn, and noticed insects teeming through his flaxen hair. Telling the relatives seemed impossible, so the family engaged in surreptitious, late-night shampooing and laundry sessions, until the secret became too much to bear. They confessed. Their hostess called the other relatives and, using her “It’s cancer” voice, cancelled the family gathering. Two brave souls showed up to give their regards, from a distance, to the unclean visitors.
Our family, boxes of Nix cream rinse hidden in our suitcases, arrived at our next destination—a lovely inn. It turns out when your head’s been colonized for more than a month, your scalp resembles a lice version of New Year’s Eve in Times Square. After my daughter and I treated ourselves with insecticide, and combed out cascades of lice for two hours, we all went to dinner in the dining room. At one point, I tossed my hair and a permethrin-drugged louse fell out and staggered on the white tablecloth. “You’re one classy lady,” my husband said.
I now know what makes someone a good mother. Forget the debates about staying at home or working, being a disciplinarian or a softie. What distinguishes the good mother is this: When your kid gets lice, you get lice, too. Of course, now all those nights spent lying on my daughter’s pillow discussing the day’s events or walking arm in arm, our heads nestled together seemed less like mother-daughter bonding than a strategy for vermin infestation.
Having proved my good-mother bona fides by contracting lice, I became a metal-spike-wielding harridan in my frenzy to get rid of them. Each evening, my daughter and I stood in the bathroom, hair soaked, as I spent an hour raking the nit comb through her scalp, cursing her luxuriant locks. Then I would turn the spiked comb on myself, yelling, “Drown, you little bugger!” as I washed each bloodsucking louse down the sink. At least with a son you could take him to the barber and have his head shaved. A few months earlier I had remarked to my daughter how cute one of her classmates looked with his crew cut. She had explained, “Mom, it’s not a hairdo; it’s because of lice.”
Lice were all new to me. I grew up in what I now think of as the Time Between Lice. Certainly my great-grandparents were examined for them at Ellis Island, and my daughter and her classmates regularly go to the school nurse for nit checks. But when I was a kid in the ‘60s, the subject never came up. In the public-health community, there is some controversy as to whether this seeming absence was because lice were considered so shameful back then that nobody talked about them, or because there was more vigilance, resulting in fewer outbreaks.
I understand now why our language is so rich with lice references: lousy, cooties, fine-tooth comb, nit-picker. Most of human history has been very itchy. In Hans Zinsser’s classic study on infectious disease, Rats, Lice and History, he quotes an observer describing how, as the body of Thomas à Beckett lay in Canterbury Cathedral, the departing lice that had lived in his layers of vestments “boiled over like water in a simmering cauldron.” And lice can be deadly. Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower describes how typhus, carried by lice living on European traders, brought an agonizing death to the Indians, their swollen tongues coated with a white fur. Napoleon’s retreat from Russia was caused, in part, by louse-borne illness decimating his army. Fortunately for us, the head lice that still afflict us don’t cause disease the way body lice do.
Female lice can live about 30 days and, during that time, can lay 100 eggs—known as nits—so I had provided meals to a generation. This Harvard School of Public Health Web site also let me know that, “Only those eggs deposited by inseminated female lice will hatch.” Somehow the thought of horny lice having coitus on my scalp did not make me feel sexy. After two weeks of combing, we finally rid ourselves of our pests.
Though lice thrive during wars, I also discovered we live in a time of lice wars. Factions of public health specialists, parents, and school administrators are fighting over how to handle lice. One side says the only way to contain this epidemic is through vigorous enforcement of a “no-nits-left-behind” policy. The other says lice are just a nuisance that don’t require a child being excluded from school until clear of them. Among the live-and-let-lice school are both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Harvard School of Public Health.
Harvard seems to take the view that diversity should not be limited to race, class, or religion, but should also include insect load. “[T]he no-nits policies are imprudent, as they are based on intolerance, hysteria and misinformation,” says its Web site. Harvard has a Postmodernist approach to lice, treating them as a sort of political construct. Their Web site says most of the lice sent to it for evaluation were actually “artifacts” such as “dandruff, “scabs,” or “other insects” blown into the hair (maybe my husband isn’t so cockamamie after all). It says fear of lice-borne disease in the past caused “atrocious and perverse campaigns to quarantine and assault unpopular ethnic groups suspected of promoting risk” and that sending home supposedly, or even actually, infested children today is a vestige of those times.
On the ruthless side is the National Pediculosis Association (pediculosis is the medical term for lice infestation), which believes head lice are thriving now because of weak and inconsistent policies regarding their control. The organization’s president, Deborah Z. Altschuler, also warns that any bloodsucking human parasite has the potential to become a vector for new diseases, and that we should be more vigilant in our efforts to contain lice.
Maybe, if the LouseBuster, a hair-blowing and louse-killing device invented by University of Utah scientists, goes into commercial production, we can finally vanquish this scourge. Until then, I’ve got our nit combs carefully wrapped and hidden away. I’m not going to stop putting my head on my daughter’s pillow just because she may have some lousy friends.