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Staying ahead of lice

Anyone with hair is at risk of getting these pests. Education and understanding are the keys to treatment

By Suzanne Rent
Photos from The Lice Crew

 

At the corner of Quinpool and Robie in Halifax is a new and unique business. It’s part clinic and part hair salon. 

This clinic opened its doors in August and so far has treated clients from ages 13 months to 92 years old. They come from around the city, but also from as far away as Fredericton and Cape Breton. This is the home of The Lice Crew. And as its name suggests, the technicians here help clients rid their hair of lice.

Lice have been around much longer than anyone who decided to make a business out of getting rid of it. As long as there have been humans, there have been lice. Since lice spread easily amongst children, parents dread them. Often needlessly.

“So many people deal with this problem,” says Joni Jacobson, senior vice-president of lice operations with The Lice Crew via a phone interview. “It’s not nearly as difficult to handle as everybody thinks when they first find out about it.” 

Lice Crew technicians can take one to three hours to clear a client’s head. Technicians advise clients to come back for a recheck. That’s to see if the most microscopic eggs hatched, and the technicians can break the cycle. 

Traditionally to treat lice, most parents made their way to a local pharmacy and picked up a treatment kit that included an insecticide shampoo and a plastic comb. But they aren’t always effective. Patience and the right equipment are key. 

Technicians at The Lice Crew use plant-based natural treatments. These won’t kill the live lice, like traditional insecticides in treatment kits, but they do loosen the glue that keeps the nits clinging to the hair. That makes nit removal easier. 

The real key to treating lice is combing. The staff at The Lice Crew create some fun in the special ways they comb their clients’ hair. There’s the “Elvis” in which the hair is combed straight back. The “Donald Trump” has a client’s hair swept to the side. Another technique is called “A Flock of Seagulls” it’s named for the lead singer of the’80s band, and involves combing that goes from the back of the hairline over the top of the head. And the “Alfalfa” has the hair all combed onto the top to make a point, much like the hairstyle of star of the 1950s show, The Little Rascals. 

Combine these combing techniques ensures the technicians get all of the nits. The comb the technicians use is a sturdy steel comb branded as The Terminator. 

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Getting rid of lice takes time, a good comb, thorough inspection, and lots of patience.

Gaynor Watson-Creed, medical officer with the Nova Scotia Health Authority, agrees that getting the right comb is most important. She says ditch the plastic combs from the treatment kits, and instead find a proper metal comb with the teeth close together. She also suggests parting the hair in one-inch segments and going through each thoroughly.

Harder to treat are the myths and misconceptions surrounding lice.

“People’s most common worry is that their house is infested,” Jacobson says. “That is simply not the case. Lice die, off the head, without their host within 24 hours.” 

Also, having lice doesn’t mean you’re unclean. In fact, Jacobson says lice seem to prefer clean hair as they get a better grip on the strands of hair. 

Lice are a human parasite; they don’t transfer from animals to people. And lice themselves don’t carry disease, although Jacobson says it’s possible to get a secondary infection from the scratching that comes with about 50 per cent of the cases of head lice. 

Lice don’t fly, but rather crawl from head to head via strands of hair. Jacobson says 90 per cent of the cases are from head-to-head contact. “When you’re sitting on the couch on the left side, one is not going to run over and jump into your head,” she says.  

Watson-Creed says children are most at risk because of how they play. “They like to play close and hug each other,” she says. “And that’s how lice are going to get transmitted. It’s not at all an uncommon affliction. It’s not at all a reflection on how somebody is doing or failing to do in their lives. It’s simply a common childhood infestation.”

Having lice can be stigmatizing for a child. That was one of the reasons behind changes to the HRSB’s head lice policy in June 2015. Previously, if a child in one class was found to have lice, a letter was sent home to all parents advising them a child in their child’s class had lice. 

But that meant parents could often figure out what child had lice by asking what child was missing from class. Now, schools send home reminders a few times a year in which parents are advised to do regular head checks at home. Watson-Creed, who advised the HRSB on the new policy, says it follows a similar one in the U.K. where one in three children get head lice. She says there lice are accepted as a common childhood issue. 

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Technicians at The Lice Crew, which now have a clinic in Halifax.

“What I love about what they’ve done is they’ve come to the place of realizing, oh this is just a common childhood infestation,” Watson-Creed says. “So parents, you should just get used to the fact that you might have a child come home for head lice. You might want to check for that a few times a year.”

Watson-Creed says the focus on lice also takes away the focus on what schools should be doing, that is, education. She says previous policies often saw children missing days, even weeks, of school. 

“The impact on their educational trajectory is irreversible, if that happens, and why would you take that risk for head lice?” Watson-Creed says.

Watson-Creed says schools often get the blame for the spread of lice, but the parasites are around all the time, and year-round. She says in most cases kids are infected during summer activities such as summer camps, sleepovers, and camping trips. Parents often don’t notice the infestation until school is back in class. 

Jacobson says there are ways to reduce the risk of getting lice, and the technicians share this information with their clients.

She says those with long hair can keep their hair in ponytail. Avoid head-to-head contact with others. Use a preventative shampoo with natural oils that deter lice, for example. The technicians also tell clients how long they’ve had lice. 

“The average person thinks their child just contracted it,” Jacobson says. “Very often, we see people with cases ranging from four all the way up to 12 or 16 weeks. You don’t want to wait until you’ve had a case that’s been in your hair for 10 weeks, because it’s pretty severe at that point.” 

Families that go to The Lice Crew find more than treatment of the parasites.

“One thing that is common is they feel the support from other families that are there,” Jacobson says. “They realized it’s not just them and they feel very relieved when they leave.” 

Watson-Creed says while lice are a nuisance, treating of them is manageable. She advises calm and understanding. 

“Be patient with yourself,” she says. “Be patient with your children. Get the right equipment. Focus on the mechanical removal. And know that it will be okay. If you do that as a parent, your kids will be okay, too.”  

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