Nits on the head but lice goes on (Point Reyes Light, 11.13.2008)

Lice—a nuisance for parents, guardians, and schools nationwide—are back in West Marin for another season. And along with head lice come student absences, pesticide-free remedies, and professional nitpickers.

“They are just rampant right now because everyone came back from summer break and it got worse and worse,” said Melissa Shilliday, co-owner of NitPixies in San Rafael. “It’s hitting pockets of school. There’s no rhyme or reason as to what school it hits. We’ve just been slammed.”

In West Marin, some schools are seeing more cases of head lice, appearing to reflect a larger nationwide awareness.


Twenty-two students out of 100 were sent home during a monthly inspection at the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District on October 29.

“Lice are lice. They’re opportunistic. It has no bearing at all on personal hygiene,” said Leo Kostelnik, the district’s principal. “It’s not a big, unusual problem. It’s just part of schooling a lot of the times. We have to work on it as a whole community, at home and at school.”

The school nurse for the Shoreline Unified School District, which has had at least a couple of cases of lice in each of the five schools, agrees. “I think in winter, people are closed-in more and they’re sharing hats and clothes,” said Maureen Martin, who deals with lice every year. “It usually happens with younger people—they are in more close intimate contact than older people.”

Close physical contact allows lice to go from one person to another, and school brings everybody back together. As a result, some schools have regular lice inspections by parent volunteers and professionals from delousing salons and community health centers.


For NitPixies, September through March is the busiest season. “Whenever there’s a break, there are sleepovers, kids share hair brushes and clothes, and relatives fly in. After every vacation it’s a boom for us,” Shilliday said. “And movie theaters are quite the culprits. When there’s a new Harry Potter movie, all the kids go to see it. One kid sits down, and the louse crawls onto the next kid who sits down.”

But lice are a year-round problem as well. According to Holly Turner, co-owner of Bug-a-lugz delousing salon in Mill Valley, the countrywide lice epidemic is primarily the result of the immunity lice have developed to the over-the-counter treatments that have long been prescribed. Parents and others using these treatments later find that they have not gotten rid of the problem. Often kids will only have eggs, not adult lice, in their hair. “That means the live lice who deposited them have moved on to another head,” Turner said. “They do what they do and move on.”

Kent Julin, a father of six, volunteers with the San Geronimo School in the Lagunitas School District, checking heads for lice. “I know how to look and what to look for, and I’m patient enough to look through all these heads,” Julin said. “It’s a service as a parent.”

Julin is called in about three times a year, usually in the fall or winter. After head lice is discovered among the students, he brings in a box of gloves and, focusing around the nape of the neck and around the ears, conducts his search. If students have head lice, they get sent home. After they’re lice-free, they come back. But it’s up to the parents to go through their heads, slide the nits off the hair follicles, and dispose of them.

It’s important to remember that clean children get head lice. “Head lice are really not a big deal. Our children get it occasionally,” Julin said. “We need to be careful with what we tell the children so their self-esteem remains high and other children don’t tease them. The remedy is simple. You don’t have to freak out.”

Julin suggests learning to identify nits and lice before you have a problem. “When somebody gets lice, go have a look so you know what to look for,” Julin said. “Learn to identify what it looks like, don’t wait for an outbreak.”


Though the days of dousing kids’ heads in kerosene are over, treatments range from heavy chemical shampoos to organic oils that slow down the adult lice.

“Pesticides aren’t working anymore,” said Shilliday. “And if those over-the-counter shampoos work, they only kill the live bugs. Nothing kills nits. That’s the fallacy. Parents will shampoo and they think they’re done. But the nits hatch and they go on to their friends’ kids. It’s just kinda self-perpetuating. And it gets out hand.”

Parents are also bringing their children to Bug-a-lugz in Mill Valley and NitPixies in San Rafael—delousing salons in Marin County that also conduct head checks at schools.

Bug-a-lugz also has a conditioner-based treatment of essential oils made in cooperation with a lab in Berkeley. “We’re not interested in a product with toxicity,” Turner said. “Our product doesn’t kill the lice. It appears to stun nymphs and adults, allowing us to remove them with great ease.” Viscous and bright white, the product allows you to see the lice and nits more clearly, making it easier to remove the lice and their eggs one by one, according to Turner.

“We do it the old fashioned way—pick nits one at a time,” Shilliday said. “We take a nit comb, The Terminator, go through the hair, and flick the lice into the plastic bin. We comb through, flick, comb through flick.” Then they go through the hair a second time, using a jeweler’s magnifying glass. “Strand by strand by strand, we catch every one we didn’t catch the first time.”

The whole process takes about an hour. The hair is treated with a pesticide-free organic product, parents are taught how to comb, and the kids come back in four days. “We help moms and dads through it. Bring anxiety down. Kids are easy. It’s the moms and dads that you need to bring down from the roof.”

If lice have been found on someone in the household, wash and dry clothes, bedding, and pillows, and vacuum the furniture, carpet, couches, and car seats. (“They go after cars. Those are what are children ride around in all day,” said Julin.) Stuffed animals and quilts can be placed in plastic bags and sealed for a couple weeks. If the nits hatch, the nymphs will die with nothing to feed on.

“Lice go on,” Turner said. “They only do three things: suck blood, fornicate, lay eggs. Then they die within 30 days, but they can do a lot of damage.”

~ by Janet Fang on November 13, 2008.

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