// JUNIOR MAGAZINE FEATURE

When nits happen…

Combs at the ready, hoover in hand, meet the lice assassins who are determined to free the nation’s hair from the nastiness of nits……

The environs of Regent’s Park in London are famed for having a wealth of wildlife and creatures great and small. From apes and aphids and wombats to weasels, the confines of London Zoo is all about animal conservation and welfare as creatures are lovingly cared for and nurtured. Yet, just a stone’s throw away, in a pretty tree-lined street, there lurks a legion of rather less welcome critters. Barely visible to the naked eye, these pesky nuisances are the bane of many a child’s – and parent’s – life. And behind the doors of a stunning family home, a team of expertly trained technicians, dubbed The Hairforce, are busily setting about their daily task – combs at the ready, spray guns in their pockets and hoovers in hand. The logo on their pristine white lab coats says it all: “Nasty with Nits, Lethal with Lice.”

Far from clinical, the room in which the so-called lice assassins conduct business oozes boudoir chic. There is fuchsia pink paisley paper on the walls, a lovely mirrored armoire and a huge black chandelier that gives an air that’s more pampering hair salon than head-lice removal service. Young clients are treated to mauve leather massage chairs, plus a choice a portable DVD player, Nintendo DS, magazines and children’s books to entertain while the serious business of nit-picking is taking place.

The Hairforce is the brainchild of Dee Wright, a former strategic planner for an advertising agency and a mother of two, who decided to set up her unusual business from home. “This used to be my dining room,” she says. “I used to have dinner parties here, and now we have nit parties!”

I wish I could say that I was only visiting in the capacity of investigative journalist, but alas, the truth was that we had an infestation. Times three. Looking back, the signs had been there, but, being novices who were thankfully thus far uninitiated in the heady world of nits, I was mistakenly putting all the head scratching down to a change in shampoo brands. It was only when my seven-year-old daughter, Lauren, scratched her head and came across a fully-grown creature that we realised that she, her four-year-old brother, Jack, and myself were all suffering from an unwelcome visitation.

Nits are a fact of life – in fact, practically a rite of passage – for most children. It’s what every parent dreads. An outbreak of head lice in the classroom heralds diligent wet-combing and nit-picking (the head lice are the fully-grown creatures, the nits are the hatched egg cases). More than a mere inconvenience, the effects of a severe infestation can also be debilitating. “We see children with runny noses, they’re tired, they’re run down with flu-like symptoms, their concentrating is not what it should be – all from having lice,” says Dee. “If your child is itching a lot, she will invariably be itching in her sleep, so she is never going to get that deep proper sleep that we need; in turn, that will affect their concentration and learning. Head lice are blood-sucking parasites and they’re the reason the word ‘lousy’ is part of the English language.”

It’s estimated that head lice now infest nearly half of the nation’s four- to eleven- year olds every year. What’s more, the sneaky little things have evolved to build immunity against chemical warfare, meaning parents find it increasingly difficult to get rid of them. According to NHS guidelines, wet combing with a fine-tooth comb is the most effective method of removal – not vinegar or mayonnaise, which are a couple of the old wives’ tales.

The downside is that wet combing is pain-staking and tedious, especially for children who are loathe to have their hair combed at the best of times. It was this that prompted Dee to come up with the idea of creating an environment that was fun rather than boring, welcoming rather than intimidating and, above all, highly effective.

The treatment goes something like this. Firstly, the hair is methodically sectioned off and tied in little bunches with purple hairbands. Jack looked decidedly cute, a bit like Pebbles from ‘The Flinstones’ and funnily enough, seemed quite happy admiring his rather unconventional look in the mirror. I, on the other hand, looked more like some crazed schoolgirl extra from Britney’s Baby One More Time video. After this, each section is hoovered using a specially customised combed nozzle, starting at the scalp and working the length of the hair. The cooling air and gently massaging technique was actually quite pleasant, though it is quite funny to see the technicians stopping every so often to open up the specially designed attachment in the hose that catches anything suspect. Then it’s on with the magnifying goggles to inspect their trappings: is that a head louse, a nit… or just dandruff? After the entire head has been hoovered, it’s time to literally set about nit-picking. Each section of the hair is spritzed with Aveda conditioner, before being combed through with a fine-tooth comb and any suspect speck meticulously removed from the hair using tweezers.

Every finding is jotted down in a notebook and a nit count totted up at the end of the session. Our first session ended thus: Lauren 14 lice (6 adults and 8 babies) and 265 nits (eggs); Jack, 7 lice (1 adult, 4 mediums, 2 babies) and 28 nits; Me, 2 lice (medium) and 17 nits. “The process is about getting the lice out and removing the nits as they come through,” says Dee. “Some of these will hatch – babies and then mediums – but the timings mean that they are unable to get to adulthood and reproduce.” It usually takes three visits, within the space of ten days, to get rid of them, with each session costing £40.

Although head lice are a minor ailment, they are never a pleasant discovery. “My daughter, Dani, used to get head lice so often, and we could never seem to get rid of them completely,” says Amanda Coplans. “She hated the chemical treatment, because it smelt so horrible. She used to run away when she saw me with a bottle!” it was after Amanda’s playground discussion with a friend, who was an aromatherapist, that they came up with a lotion that contained a blend of aromatherapy oils. It worked – and it smelt nice, too. “My daughter half-jokingly said ‘you should sell this at school,’ and we thought what a great idea. It became our Nitty Gritty Head Lice Aromatherapy Solution.”

Amanda was now also on a mission to find the perfect fine-tooth comb for wet combing, a quest which led her to two clever fathers in Argentina, who were former ship engineers. Their design became the Nitty Gritty NitFree Comb, which has now sold over a million units; it’s available free on prescription, too. So what’s so unique about its design? “The micro-spiral groove on each tooth runs smoothly along the hair strands and gently removes any lice without damaging the hair,” says Amanda. “It works really quickly and easily removes not just head lice, but also un-hatched eggs and nits.” Legions of parents swear by the Nitty Gritty for its efficacy (including Jonathan Ross, whose own effusive testimonial can be found on the website) and it’s the perfect piece of kit to keep infestations at bay. Meanwhile, back at The Hairforce, we were visiting for the third time in nine days and eagerly awaiting the verdict: Lauren, 0 lice, 9 mostly empty nits; Jack 0 lice, 14 nits; Me: 0 lice, 6 nits. Lauren and I were officially pronounced clean, but because Jack had more than ten nits, he was booked in for a complimentary check a few days later where he had no lice and one nit. Of course, there’s no guarantee that we won’t suffer from head lice again, but we departed from The Hairforce with a common farewell: “Thanks for everything,” I said, “And I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I hope we never see you again.” “Pleasure,” replied Dee. “Good to see three more nit- and lice- free people in the world.”

In an attempt to make this a reality, we have also vowed to include a once-a-week wet-combing session into our bath routines. But you know, it’s not all bad news. “Nits are a nuisance,” says Amanda, “but all children can get them, and most do. I always like to remind parents of one simple fact: to catch head lice, you need friends. Isn’t that more important for your child?”

THE FACTS OF LICE

What are head lice? Lice are wingless,  greyish – white insects with flattened, elongated bodies and oval heads. They are 1.5mm to 3mm long.

Where can head lice be found? Head lice spend their life clinging tightly onto our hair as soon as they hatch. They tend to stay close to our scalps, so they can feed on our blood; they cannot survive for long once removed from the head.

How do you get head lice? Head lice move from one host to another during head-to-head contact. When your hair is touching someone else’s, even for a few moments, they can migrate. This is why they are prevalent amongst primary school children.

What are the signs? Often, there is no sign of infestation until nits- empty egg cases – start to become visible as they grow out in the hair. Not everyone itches. Use a fine-tooth comb to do a careful visual check for nits, eggs and head lice once or twice a week. Do this when you wash and condition the hair. If hair is dry, lice can move rapidly away from the area being examined.

How can you detect lice and nits? It’s easiest with conditioner on the hair, as this immobilises lice. Section the hair and comb from the scalp downwards. After each stroke, check the comb for live lice. Fully grown head lice are the size of a small ant, but newly hatched eggs can be as small as a pinhead. If you inspect dry hair, do so in good light. Look for eggs glued to the roots close to the scalp. If you find eggs or nits attached to the hair, then check all family members and use a comb to treat everyone who has lice, nits or eggs in their hair.

What is the difference between nits and eggs?

‘Live’ head louse eggs are glued to an individual hair strand as soon as they are laid. Nits are empty egg cases, which remain glued on the hair as it grows after the nymph lice have hatched. Nits are often the first visible sign of a head-lice infestation.

Where are the eggs found?

Female head lice attach each egg to the root of an individual hair strand close to the scalp, so that when they hatch, they are close to their food source. Eggs found more than 1cm from the scalp will be nits, which remain glued on and grow out as our hair grows.

What do the eggs look like? They are about the size of a pinhead, white to cream in colour and they look like a tiny teardrop fastened to the hair shaft.

Do lice prefer clean or dirty hair? They’re not fussy, but it is easier to move in clean hair. Lice are tough, resourceful creatures. You can’t wash them out, and there is no scientific evidence to indicate that either washing or not washing the hair will prevent an infestation.

Do they prefer boys or girls? Girls tend to spend more time than boys in head-to-head contact. They usually have longer hair too, which can make it easier for head lice to move from head to head. It’s rare for fathers to get head lice, so some experts believe they don’t like testosterone.

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