I mentioned long, long ago that we had an epidemic I wouldn’t be ready to talk about for a long time. Now that a long time has passed, I’m ready.
We had head lice.
The fact that I was so embarrassed at the time just illustrates that I had fallen prey to the undeserved stigma associated with head lice. I know it’s not limited to dirty people. I know anyone can catch it, regardless of personal hygiene. I even know that lice prefer clean hair, because it’s harder for them to attach their eggs to oily hair. I knew all this and I was still ashamed to admit that we had head lice, because bugs crawling around in your hair are gross.
But when we received a call from a mother whose children had recently played with mine, my stomach hit the floor and I knew right away that we were in for it. One of the kids had already mentioned an itchy scalp, and I was naive enough to brush it off as, you know, an itchy scalp. Silly me. Lesson learned. These days, when I hear the words, “Mom, my head – ” I’m all over that kid with 3 combs and a flashlight. If she finishes the sentence with the word “aches,” that’s ok. You can never be too careful.
But my friend’s kids had head lice, and she called me to ask for tips on getting rid of them. And her kids had recently played with mine. And one of my kids had an itchy scalp. Now the truth was out, and the battle was on.
We had head lice once years before, and the harsh chemicals had damaged the hair of some of the girls for years afterward, so I wasn’t eager to go that route. Since we caught our infestation very early this time, I tried the natural approach: I checked each child thoroughly to determine who needed treatment, and started combing. I spent hours each day combing for bugs and picking out eggs, thankful that only one or two scalps showed any signs of life at all.
We also bought individual hairbrushes and outlawed all sharing, boiling them frequently. We wore our hair up, we cleaned bedding, we vacuumed everything in the house, and did all the standard stuff – but without poisons.
After a week, I was horrified to discover that the lice had spread to one or two more scalps in our house. I stepped up the efforts and began researching other methods of control. I don’t remember what else I tried, but I do remember the growing sense of desperation as one method after another failed, evidenced by the slow but steady population growth and spread of the beasties throughout the heads in our household.
Finally, I did it. I went to the drugstore, prepared to shell out $100-200 for bottles of poison that would give my children ugly hair and cancer. I didn’t want to do it, but we were leaving for a vacation in a few weeks and I didn’t want to risk infecting the friends and family we would be visiting. It would take multiple doses a week apart, and we had to be done with this by then, hopefully with a safety margin. We simply couldn’t waste any more time.
Determined to get it right, I asked the pharmacist on duty what brand she recommended. If I had to go the chemical route, I wanted the best. I wanted the one that would really, truly, actually do the job.
Her answer shocked me.
“You can buy over-the-counter treatments for head lice and try them, but lice have become very resistant to most of those. If you really want to kill them, try this: mayonnaise and tea tree oil. Really douse the hair, wrap it tightly in plastic, and leave it on for at least 6 hours.”
Really? I was waving a fistful of dollars at her and she didn’t want them? I was a little disappointed and a little relieved. I was glad not to spend a lot of money on a cure I didn’t trust, but also a little nervous that this new suggestion would fail us. Then who would get the blame? Me? Her? Nobody? And what would we do about our vacation?
I did it. I bought a gallon jar of mayo, several ounces of tea tree oil, and went to work. The boys had already been shaved, but every girl in the house wore a plastic-topped mess of highly scented mayo for the rest of the day. We used about 1 cup of mayo with 1 tsp of tee tree oil for each head, and covered our hair with plastic grocery bags pulled tight like shower caps. We repeated the process a week later, and for good measure we did it once more.
By the time it was over nobody smiled at being called Mayonnaise Head, and some of us still associate the scent of tea tree oil with head lice, but our hair was never so shiny and healthy. And we never saw another creepy crawly head bug again. And we all lived happily ever after. Except the head lice. They died and disappeared, never to be seen again.
PS. My friend decided to go the chemical route, and guess what? It didn’t work. They followed the instructions to a tee, and after the prescribed 2 treatments, they were still finding live bugs. The cure that eventually worked for them: mayo and tea tree oil. Ba-da-BING!
image credit: Eran Finkle