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The Low-Down on Lice

It's back to school month and, as any experienced parent will tell you, that means one thing. During four out of the last five Septembers, at least one of my three kids has come down with lice.
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It's back to school month and, as any experienced parent will tell you, that means one thing. I don't know if it's the hot weather or the fact that everyone's showing off their summer highlights by wearing their hair long and loose, but during four out of the last five Septembers, at least one of my three kids has come down with -- click away if you're squeamish -- lice.

(It has to be psychosomatic, but just say the word "lice" and your head itches. Go ahead, try it. See?)

The first time my daughter was infected, I turned -- in desperation -- to an over-the-counter chemical treatment chock full of piperonyl butoxide, designated a "low hazard" for cancer and reproductive toxicity on the Skin Deep database, which also shows a 70 percent data gap in testing -- I suspect it's more toxic than that.

This year, in honor of National Head Lice Prevention Month (yes, it's for real) I did some preemptive sleuthing and found disturbing news.
Not so much about the creepy-crawlers themselves -- the fact that they affect between six and 12 million kids every year and are pretty much pesticide-resistant at this point is old news (although recently reported by MNN).

No, I'm more concerned about the chemicals we use to treat lice. New information is now out about prescription-only treatments containing the pesticide lindane, which is banned for use on crops and animals because it has been linked to cancer, seizures and deaths. "It's not permitted to put lindane on your dog in the U.S.," said Joe DiGangi, PhD, a senior science and technical advisor at the International POPs Elimination Network who was quoted on iWatchNews. "But they're still allowing it to be put on your child's head." Although lindane is a "second line" treatment -- meaning it's only prescribed if other methods fail -- according to this source, sales of the chemical topped $10 million last year, which seems to indicate that doctors aren't shying away from prescribing the stuff.

And though a new pesticide was approved this year by the FDA for use in treating head lice, according to ThirdAge, with over-the-counter options like the one I turned to, the problem becomes compounded when parents reapply the product too soon after they discover the true horror that is pesticide-resistant bugs.

So what's a mom to do? Here are a few tips (and answers):

1. Keep kids' hair short or, if that's not possible, make sure they put it back into a tight ponytail, bun or braid. This will keep the lice from crawling from another child's head to your child's -- p.s. lice don't jump or swim, in case you were wondering.

2. Spray! Some parents use hair spray; I found a natural rosemary and tea tree lice spray that I love. Either way, spray your kids' hair to keep it in place and deter with a scent that lice don't like.

3. Although head lice can only live a day or so off the human head and nits (head lice eggs) die within a week without a human host, unless you're sure that baseball cap your child wants to borrow has been quarantined for at least a week, don't risk it during lice season. Same goes for wigs, although according to the CDC, helmets and headphones aren't at risk. Go figure.

4. Check your kids' heads. Get your hands in there and separate the strands all the way to the root. Look especially at the nape and behind the ears, where eggs like to hide. Look for teeny-tiny yellowish dots -- they almost look like pieces of sand. If you wiggle the hair and the piece falls out, don't worry about it. If it clings to the hair shaft, you may have a problem -- especially if you see a clump of two or three. At that point, you might want to look for bugs.

5. If your child does have lice, don't panic! There are several natural options to kill live lice, but the main thing you have to remember is patience and diligence in picking out those eggs once the live ones are gone. Take your time. Use a nit comb. Do this for two or three days after the outbreak, and then for two or three days seven days later (when any nits you missed may have hatched). This doesn't have to be a horrible experience! I actually found it was a great way to talk to my typically reticent tweenaged son. (The lengths we'll go, right?)

6. After you've done the first comb-through, vacuum all floors, rugs, pillows, carpets and upholstered furniture, wash all sheets and towels and dry them on hot.

These preventative measures may take some time but trust me, they're worth it!