How to get rid of head lice

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The Independent Culture
I am waging war. My enemy is the size of a pinhead and its troops multiply exponentially by six every day. Don't be deceived by its cutesy nickname, "nit". I'm talking about vicious, bloodsucking head lice. And though I've won the occasional minor skirmish, these repulsive parasites have merely used the opportunity to regroup and launch a fresh campaign to colonise my family's scalps.

Devon has been suffering a head lice epidemic for almost a year. While its origins probably lie in an unusually hot summer conducive to breeding, the onslaught has not been deterred by an extraordinarily cold winter. My eight-year-old daughter has been infected at school 11 times in fewer months.

We have tried the officially sanctioned treatments. These are shampoo- style pesticides which are left on the head for between one and 12 hours. All of them sting, smell offensive and are expensive. Children can get them as free prescriptions from GPs, but working parents with little time to waste in doctors' waiting rooms tend to find themselves shelling out cash at the pharmacy just before closing time, or on Sunday afternoon. As it is always recommended that the entire household is treated, to prevent a circle of re-infestation within a family, this becomes a costly exercise.

Lice are wily creatures, though, and over-the-counter treatments become increasingly ineffective with repeated application. Furthermore, there have been allegations that some of these lotions are carcinogenic. True or not, it surely cannot be safe to plaster your head with pesticides every few weeks. Or days, as the case may be.

Surely, the main problem in our area is the lack of a pro-active policy to end the epidemic. For every parent who regularly checks their children's hair and keeps them out of school until free of lice, there are two who do not.

Dr Mark Keely from the Public Health Office says that the current campaign to educate parents by sending home leaflets and free, fine-toothed NAPP combs in addition to inviting them to optional lecture evenings "makes no sense at all", as it fails to reach the parents who are not motivated to check and treat their children's hair in the first place. He wants to reintroduce mandatory head inspections in schools but is prevented by the split between the health authority and community services trust.

Dr Keely is not a strong advocate of pesticides and favours a remedy of thorough and regular NAPP combing. This will eventually break the nits' lifecycle as they are unable to reproduce and eggs not yet cemented on to hairshafts will be eliminated. However, when my daughter's school was informed that we would be taking this course of action, the headmaster strongly implied that she would not be allowed back at school until her hair was free of even struggling, impotent nits. The process takes three weeks, so did not seem possible without a nanny and tutor.

Alternative nit treatments include dousing the head in lemon juice, paraffin or petrol. The first doesn't work and the other two are too unpleasant to contemplate seriously.

The best course seems to be a preventative one. Daily use of a NAPP comb and applications of tea tree oil helped us for a while, as did some pungent, bark-like stuff which we boiled and poured on our head every three days. As lice only spread through head-to-head contact, my daughter wore a hat for the few days her school allowed it.

Unfortunately, after a few blissful insect-free weeks we became complacent and went back to occasional NAPP-combing. The lice seized their chance to invade.

The only sure-fire way to get rid of nits is to avoid all contact with groups of children, which is not really an option. So comfort must be taken in the homilies of propaganda leaflets: lice prefer clean hair and are nothing to be ashamed of. Tell that to the mum who's been on Prozac since discovering creepy crawlies on her son's head.