When Was Your First Time?

I have an image of my youngest sister in my (nit) head, unkempt as a feral kitten, mute til she was five (she couldn’t get a word in edgewise with four older siblings & umpteen adults all over the house), with a stinking chemical potion simmering on her head. I remember thinking, ha ha. I’m so glad that’s not me. Until my mother beckoned me into the bathroom to take a turn. In those days, there were no niceties with a nit comb. If you got that brown envelope from school it meant the nit nurse had spoken (albeit discreetly) and my mum, squeamish about creepy-crawlies at the best of times, applied the regulation sheep-dip without hesitation.

And that stuff reeked so much it howled. What did they put in it? Napalm? It was treatment of the herd, regardless of whether there were any signs of life in any other familial thatch and it was the same when she came home with worms. I can still taste the warm blackcurrant mix in the paper cup we all had to gag down. To this day I can’t smell let alone drink Ribena without wanting to retch. Vile beverage.

My friend Alice said her first time was ten years ago when her eldest daughter, then aged six, came home from school with the standard generic note about a reported case of infestation. She gave her little head the once over, spotted nothing and forgot all about it. Two weeks later she said there were headlice practically abseiling off the six year old’s eyebrows. The kid was teeming – it was a veritable louse circus with insects swinging off her hair like they were on a trapeze.

That’s the clever thing about headlice, they are brilliant gymnasts.

When was your first time?

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Nit-removal preparations do not work — official

Louse eggs glued to hair strands

I am a geek, so my light reading often extends to the scientific journal Medical and Veterinary Entomology, published for the Royal Entomological Society. And I take great delight in bringing you the latest nit news from the arcane world of academic entomology.

Phthirapterists (people who study lice) are an inventive bunch. Not only do they keep lice as pets (more on that later), they build nit-testing machinery. The latest offering is a gadget to test how easy (or not) it is to slide a nit from its cemented position on a hair stalk.

Nit glue is pretty tough stuff, and is one of the secrets of louse success. It is created by the female louse as a liquid, but hardens within seconds on exposure to air. It forms a tight sheath around the hair stalk which holds he egg in place with a vice-like grip. Long after the tiny louseling has hatched and walked off across the scalp, the empty eggshell (nit), now bright white, is a brilliant distraction to focus our grooming on the wrong things. Months after the louse has left its egg, the nits are still firmly attached to the hair, and as the hair grows the nits just become more obvious.

Since some schools operate a no-nit policy, parents can spend hours of wasteful time trying to get rid of them. Any pharmaceutical company that comes out with a nit-glue-dissolving preparation will be on to a winner. But I’m not convinced. The cement appears to have a chemical structure somewhat similar to hair. If a chemical can dissolve the glue, surely it will surely dissolve the hair too. The trouble is that these chemical companies can get rather carried away with the advertising claims.

Ian Burgess, at the Medical Entomology Centre in Cambridge, put some of their claims to the test. He developed a machine with a tiny glass tube through which a nit-laden hair was passed. The tube was so small that the hair could just get through, but the nit could not, and was held fast at the tube entrance. He then measured how much force was required to pull the hair through the tube, and free from the louse egg.

He tried several specialized nit-loosening brands, along with some anti-louse shampoos, ordinary hair conditioner, olive oil, plain water and dry hair. And this is what he found:

“We conclude that so-called ‘nit-removing’ products have no effect in terms of loosening the grip of the cement-like fixative secreted by the female louse to hold her eggs in place on the hair. None of the products tested demonstrated any detectable chemical or physical activity beyond lubricating effects indistinguishable from those found for widely used toiletry or cosmetic products….There appears to be no justification in purchasing products specifically marketed for this purpose.”

In other words, they don’t work. Told you so.

Ostrich Eggs

Not a nit

Richard, aka Bugman Jones (think Indiana but with an insect net instead of a bullwhip), told me he found an ostrich egg in Dulwich Woods last week. Not your usual addition to the school nature table, you’ll agree. In fact, a startlingly unlikely exhibit next to the mortified stag beetle and chestnut leaf. One egg – whole forest. The analogy is obvious to me. One nit – whole head of hair. But where as that stray ostrich egg is definitely not going to hatch out into a six foot bird with comedy feet, the mystery of how it came to be there up in the woods is both baffling and exciting. Not so the louse egg in the head of hair. One egg will hatch and it will wreak havoc as relatively effectively as a flock of ostriches let loose on the landscape. One egg will not disappear of its own accord. And, there is no exciting mystery whatsoever as to how that nit got there. It was laid. By a headlouse. That stepped off someone’s head. And, of course, there is never just one egg, there are always lots.

Throughout my existence as a parent, I have battled headlice. The fight against infestation has consumed hours and hours of my life. I have combed and cried and watched back-to-back Julie Andrews movies until I’ve screamed (no, it is not a jolly bloody holiday with Mary any more). I have fished through my children’s heads at bus stops, in traffic jams and on beaches. I have come to know my enemy well. Curiously, I have come to respect its tenacity. Headlice have been with us for thousands of years and are here to stay, especially if we parents sit back and pretend they will go away if we do nothing. When it comes to nits, you cannot make like an ostrich and bury your head in the sand.

Oh no, the usual nit letter

What luck, six-year-old came home with the usual head-louse letter last week. Perfect timing. We’ve been louse-free for six months now, but I knew it would not last. Luckily he has straight fine hair and a quick run through with the nit comb we bought on holiday (that’s another story) showed nothing…this time. Lice hold no fear in this household. They come, they go, and occasionally I will mount one on a card as an entomological exhibit.

It is perfect timing because it gives a perfect way in to introduce this blog, all about head lice. We love lice, or rather we love to hate them. To vent this love/hate relationship with nits, Justine and I are writing a book about them.

Here’s what we know about lice:

They are beautifully described in a Victorian monograph as ‘cadaverous ashen white’. Masterful.

They bite. But it doesn’t hurt. Strange.

They suck blood. That’s what the black wiggly line is down the inside of their body — your blood.

They sneak about as if by magic, but they don’t fly, they don’t jump, they don’t hop or skip or vault.

They don’t live in hats, or hair-brushes, or towels or cycle helmets. Nor do they loiter with intent on the lacy antimacassars draped over the back of your grandparent’s easy chairs.

Lice are fascinating.