The dreaded phone call

It happened last week. My husband got the dreaded phone call from school, and picked up the boys immediately. When I arrived home, expecting an hour or two of quiet work, I was confronted by all the members of my household, wet, nude, each in very different states of mind. My husband was flustered, my elder son close to hysterics, and my younger son was overjoyed, dancing around and singing, not minding at all the special shampoo which they all had to keep on for ten minutes.

Pediculus humanus. Head lice.

Here I must admit to something shameful: I had been hoping for this day to come, because there were various remedies I wanted to try out. So at first I was a little annoyed that my husband had already bought and applied medicated shampoo which contained pyrethrum extract (the same chemical ancient Roman soldiers rubbed on their heads) and piperonyl butoxide.

Here’s the difference between theory and practice: when you comb your child’s hair and the dandruff which falls out starts to scurry away, the last thing you want to do is start blending an exotic mix of oils and herbs. All rational thoughts about avoiding exposure to poisons fly out the window and you will want to run out and buy anything and everything which will immediately kill, kill, KILL! Still, just because my boys had already been treated with the standard insecticidal soap didn’t mean I couldn’t supplement with my own concoctions.

I had some Neem oil, a dark greenish oil from India, which I’d bought to help relieve eczema symptoms and to make a bug spray for my plants. It repels insects but its strong garlicky smell repels most humans too, which is a plus for lice. Close head to head contact should be avoided, so stinky hair is desirable. But Neem does much more. I couldn’t take the time to mix it up with anything and just rubbed it pure right on both boys scalps. It was a bit itchy at first (it should normally be cut with another oil such as coconut or olive oil) but it went to work quickly: within 20 minutes, the nits, tiny little eggs which female lice glue to the bottom of the hair shaft, were sliding off instead of needing to be yanked out with the hair. By the next day the oil had completely cleared all the dandruff away, which made it much easier to look for the stray louse, the tiny nits and all the teenage nymphs and nymphettes. But there’s more! Neem doesn’t actually kill bugs but it messes with their hormones, preventing them from moulting, which they need to do four times before they can reproduce at the grand old age of 8 to 9 days. This will keep them from making a comeback in case an egg or two escaped notice during the hours spent nit-picking.

Which brings me to the most important line of defense: no matter what chemical you apply there is sure to be one or two resistant bugs, three or four hardy little eggs left. That’s all it takes to start up a new colony. Tie up you own hair, settle down by a good light with a good book, then pick away, checking every single hair on the head, preferably several times in a row, then twice a day for at least a week. The comb above won the gold medal at the 1926 Düsseldorf Health Exhibition, and it’s still the best around. Even so it won’t pull everything out. You’ll need to use your fingernails to pull out nits one at a time. The “gross” factor disappears quickly, replaced by a strange, primal contentment. Nit-picking is a very soothing activity. The little eggs crunched between fingernails give a most satisfying pop. I’m almost sad they’re all gone.

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