Ah, School's In Session: Time for The Nit Detector

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Timeless ritual: The only sure way to rid a scalp of lice

This column is about head lice, so by the time you’re done reading, you'll be scratching your scalp. Don't be alarmed. This is a reflexive response to the words lice and nit. I've been scratching and obsessively checking my scalp for a week, and all I can say is, I'll take a psychosomatic case of Pediculus humanus capitis over the real thing any day.

When my daughter first came home from preschool lousy and itching, I saw it as a good-news/bad-news scenario. On one hand we finally had that family of house pets we'd always wanted. Unfortunately, they were colonizing her head of beautiful, thick hair. Then they moved on to mine.

September usually sees a bump in the reported cases of head lice as kids go back to school. Despite the common misconception that lice can leap tall buildings, like fleas, they're actually crablike crawlers, moving from scalp to scalp. Though lice don't usually transmit disease, they can cause a lot of discomfort, embarrassment and missed school days, so parents should deal with head lice the moment they become aware of an infestation.

Unfortunately, some of the treatments for head lice are more dangerous than the bugs. Earlier this month, a Colorado schoolgirl suffered severe burns after she was treated with gasoline. Other remedies are highly toxic; lindane, used in some prescription remedies, has just been banned in California.

The worst thing a parent can do when a child becomes infested is freak out. The best thing is be methodical. Deal with the child's scalp first, then launder sheets, pillowcases and towels, using high heat to dry. There is usually no need to dispose of clothes, stuffed animals, etc. Lice can live only about a day outside a scalp, so if the scalp is louse free, chances are the environment will be too. Unfortunately, any nits that remain can reinfect a child in a matter of days. Thus the importance of careful nitpicking (more on that later).

Several over-the-counter remedies are available to treat louse outbreaks; pharmacists and schools will generally recommend products such as Nix rinse or Rid shampoo. These are helpful, but parents must follow the directions carefully and reapply the treatment after the prescribed number of days. Also, some lice seem resistant to the insecticides used in these products, so there's no substitute for checking and re-checking your child's scalp.

Lice look like tiny crabs, and nits are tiny gray pearls cemented to the hair shaft near the root. The only sure way to get rid of lice and their eggs is pore over the hair, starting with a good nit comb. Wet the hair, divide it into many sections, and then methodically comb from the scalp outward. Make sure the child is sitting in a brightly lighted area, preferably in front of a good long video.

Boomers who have delayed parenthood to pursue their careers have a special problem with nitpicking: by the time the kids are old enough to bring lice home, the aging parents are often too blind to see the nits. Reading glasses or a good magnifying glass can help. Meanwhile, Dr. Sydney Spiesel, a researcher at Yale, is developing a "nit detector" — a shampoo containing Blankophor, which he says will adhere to the lice and nits and make them visible under ultraviolet light. He plans to market the shampoo and a black light together, making the nitpicking process "Fun!" he says.