If Facebook trends are to be believed, anyone not debating the latest political meme with their drunk uncle in the comments has been clamoring over the apparent return of “Mutant” and “Super Lice” to school nurse’s offices across the country. So should you brace for the worst mutant outbreak since that horrendous Ninja Turtles reboot?
Not so, says Dr. Richard Pollack, an entomologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. Pollack has a PhD in Parasitology, and after 30+ years in the field and tens of thousands of school children examined for lice, he says those reports are synonymous with the hilarious-yet-scientific term for an infected scalp: lousy.
Don’t think Pollack knows what he’s talking about? The guy has maintained lice colonies on his own body as a means of research (“I’m interested in the bugs that are interested in me”). Now that you’re convinced, here’s his advice.
Head Lice Are Harmless
Between kindergarten and fourth grade in U.S. schools, the average prevalence of head lice is around one percent. It drops dramatically by fifth grade and all but vanishes by sixth grade. “Head lice pose almost immeasurably tiny direct harm to humans and they’re not really of any public health significance,” says Pollack, who has successfully lobbied school systems, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Centers For Disease Control to reevaluate their head lice policies.
According to Pollack, who cares if there are mutant lice? Zero the tenth power is still zero.
Resistant Lice Are Expected
Like any insect that’s repeatedly dosed with an insecticide, over time lice will develop mutations that make them resistant. Pollack published a study on the subject back in 1999, so you might even say the Southern Illinois study was late to the party. The only difference is the latter study tested specimens from across the country, allowing journalists to run with the notion that half the nation is harboring lice that won’t respond to popular over-the-counter treatments. But Pollack is quick to point out that degrees of resistance vary, and he doesn’t even necessarily buy Southern Illinois University’s conclusion. “Just because a louse has the [mutated] genes, to me, doesn’t mean they’re fully resistant to these products,” he says. Lice researcher fight!
“Just because a louse has the [mutated] genes, to me, doesn’t mean they’re fully resistant to these products”
How To Get Rid Of ‘Em
So what should you do if your kid is set upon by one of these super mutants? For one thing, stop using that stupid term. “I certainly wouldn’t call them super lice. There’s nothing super about them,” Pollack says. Instead, he recommends today the same thing he has for years. First, make sure that’s a bona fide louse on your child’s scalp and not just a case of Junior forgetting to use their Head & Shoulders.
Next, get yourself a good louse comb. With the proper technique, you can rid your child of all head lice and their eggs in about 5 minutes for short, straight hair, or 7-8 minutes for a thicker mane. If your kid has much longer hair, or you just want to be sure, Pollack insists that tried and true over-the-counter products like Nix or Rid will still do the trick. Two treatments over 10 days, each costing about $8, and you’re good to go.
If you’re still seeing lice the day after that second treatment, it’s time to call the doctor. Prescription products aren’t necessarily stronger or better, just different insecticides. They are more expensive — $150 or more per treatment ($20 if you’ve got decent insurance) — but they work, regardless of the headlines telling you otherwise.
How Not To Get Rid Of ‘Em
For all the work he’s done to change policies and advising parents on how to treat lice, Pollack still finds himself primarily preventing parents from doing what parents tend to do: react hysterically and panic. Shaving your child’s head to prevent infestation, for example, is an option, “but it’s really overkill,” he says.
Fathers, in particular, have approached Pollack for advice on some odd home remedies over the years. Several have asked, “We scuba dive — how deep do we have to go to drown the lice?” Others wanted to know if they could treat their kids with the same stuff they use on their backyard tomato plants. Still, others wondered, “Well, hell, I’ve got a heat gun I use for stripping paint off the walls, can’t I use that?”
Generally, Pollack recommends you consult a doctor before you try to treat lice with anything likely to inflict more harm than the lice themselves, which is to say an incredibly minimal amount. Other than a little itching, head lice are harmless. God, what a useless creature.
Don’t Worry, Be Lousy
“Of all the things your child can come home from school with, head lice are the least significant. So you find a louse in your child’s hair? Smile, put your hands together, and say, ‘Oh how wonderful, you have friends.’ Lice are only acquired by direct head-to-head contact, so that’s the silver lining in all this. Your kid’s a social creature. They just have a social disease — but a good one.”