It’s a lousy job….

The Times Beauty Editor, Sarah Vine, wrote of her personal experience using our service to clear her children.

Sara Vine fought a brave fight with her children’s headlice but to no avail. So she decided to call in the professionals.

Before I had two school-age children, I never thought about head lice. If I contemplated them at all it was in the same way that I thought about the bubonic plague, or sending children up chimneys: a deeply pleasant affliction from a past era. If someone had told me that one day I would be discussing the little buggers with nonchalance and, let’s be honest, deep passion, I would have been horrified. Head lice? Me? Never.

The truth is that in the small universe of a primary school child, head lice are as common as scabbed knees. They are also nothing to be ashamed of, in fact, I have come to view them with a kind of grim sense of hilarity, such is their tenaciousness and universality. Part of me even admires them, you know, as a species. After all, anything that can survive an army of pushy mothers must be truly exceptional, and a worthy adversary to boot.

At my daughter’s school, having nits is almost a rite of passage, like losing your baby teeth. But in her reception year, my daughter was cruelly thwarted. As a diligent new school-gate mum, I did the Nitty Gritty comb twice a week, checking for eggs, and tied her hair up in tight bunches. She would sit in the bath, her hair silky with conditioner and ask, “Anything?” No, would come the answer and her face would fall.

And then, one day at a party, I caught her scratching like mad. Several Class 3 girls generously offered to perform a check. To whoops and squeals, the news was confirmed: nits present. My daughter beamed and went back to licking the icing off her cupcake. Finally: one of the gang.

Since then, we have been waging a war of attrition, me and the bugs. Screams and tears at bathtime have become a regular event, as I drag the nit comb through my daughter’s thick, long hair.

I have tried almost every chemical solution on the market, plus several non-chemical ones, and an awful lot of shouting. Time after time, the comb yields its crop of critters. I am starting to suspect that if the end of the world ever does come to pass, the cockroaches may find they have some serious competition.

The risk of cross-contamination in our house is high. The children share a room and my daughter regularly sneaks into our bed. Recently, I was woken by vigorous scratching. I envisioned an all-out assault on neighbouring territories, colonies of the things crossing the pillow to boldly go where no nit has gone before – chiefly my own head. This would not be a good look, I reasoned. It was time to Do Something.

When the “lice assassins” arrived, they came not in the traditional manner of trained killers, dressed in black and by stealth, but at 5.30pm on the dot as arranged. They had with them a vast amount of unlikely paraphernalia: two special chairs, two Hoovers with nit attachments, holsters equipped with an array of combs, goggles, magnifying glasses and, joy of joys, Nintendos and DVD players. The Nintendos caused a hushed awe: objects of legend as yet forbidden. Both children settled eagerly and plugged themselves in.
The process is exhaustive, and goes some way to explaining why my own battles had failed. No pesticides are used (“they don’t work”). Instead, the hair was divided into small sections. Each section was then swept for bugs – the Hoover hose contains a bug catcher – and all prisoners logged. Suction over, the real elbow-work began. Bit by bit, the lice assassins (aka Aileen and Katie) divided the hair into rows barely a strand thick, and combed for eggs. This was a delight: silent, acquiescent children, engrossed in video games, oblivious to the carnage taking place above.

My daughter, as expected had what Aileen termed a medium-sized infestation: six adult lice, one “teenager” and 142 (count ‘em!) eggs on the verge of hatching. I must admit that this news sent a shiver down my spine; my daughter seemed rather pleased with herself. The tally, explained Aileen, was not atypical. I was horrified: daily combing sessions, chemicals, constant supervision – and she still had a headful. By no means the worst she’s ever seen.

My son, by contrast, had nothing much to report, just a couple of old egg husks. This surprised me, given the degree of contact the two have. In fact, it merely illustrates that prevention I far easier than a cure: much better to stop them getting a hold rather than to try and get rid of them. The female louse only has to mate once in her lifetime to produce eggs, and she lays ten a day. The eggs take about a week to hatch, and only a few days to reach maturity. If you eradicate them at egg stage, you should never have too much of a problem: it’s when you have live adult lice that the cycle sets in and it gets so tricky.

Aileen and Katie were a mine of information. What everyone calls nits are actually the eggs. They prefer girls to boys (something to do with not liking the taste of testosterone). Eggs can be golden brown or black, dependent on the colour of the hair. Aileen even said she had once de-loused a teenager with pink hair – and swore the eggs had turned a pinky colour. Contrary to rumour, the hatched lice don’t “jump”- they just look as if they’re jumping because the hair shaft is so springy. And finally, there is no great secret to their eradication: just painstaking work. Oh, and a plentiful supply of computer games.

The Hairforce: www.thehairforce.co.uk: 07720 838271.

The Nitty Gritty

Head lice are wingless insects. They can’t jump and transmission from person to person generally requires close and surprisingly prolonged head-to-head contact. Adults can catch them, but they are mainly a problem in children of between 4 and 12. Cleanliness seems to make little difference.

Once mature, at around ten days old, each female can lay up to 60 eggs that take just over a week to hatch. They can survive up to two days off the scalp but transmission through brushes, hats and pillows is unusual – they don’t like leaving the scalp and those that fall off tend to be on their last legs.

Tell-tale signs of infestation include an itchy scalp, a rash just below the hairline on the nape of the neck and “nits” – tiny eggs cemented to the hair shaft – but the only definitive way to confirm their presence is to find a live louse, best done by combing the hair through with a fine-tooth comb designed for the job.

It never ceases to amaze me how patients who go out of their way to buy organic produce appear only too happy to douse their offspring in pesticides – particularly as recent research has suggested that in some areas eight out of ten lice are resistant to the most commonly used types.

My preferred approach is a combination of topical dimethicone (Hedrin), a non-pesticide silicone-type compound that “suffocated” lice – and wet combing. Apply as per instructions and comb the hair (wet and covered in conditioner) with a nit comb every three days for the following two weeks.

Once the scalp is clear, regular checking and prompt treatment is the best prevention.

Dr Mark Porter

The Times

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