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To start off with, this article is dedicated to my mother and all of the (wonderful, capable, fantastic and slightly over-the-top) mothers out there that are just like her.
Growing up, I had the opportunity to make a substantial amount of mischief and got quite good at pushing my parents’ buttons- particularly those belonging to my mother. As the mother of quite a few kids, my mother was strict with her time in order to accomplish all of the things that she needed to keep the household running smoothly. One thing that “ain’t nobody got time for” in her house was lice, so that became the button that we all like(d) to push.
Due to some truly horrific experiences with lice that had nothing to do with the children in our family, my mother was cautious to the point of being slightly neurotic about keeping us kids bug-free. I can remember two times in particular where one sibling came home with a note from school about a classmate being contaminated, and as soon as possible, we were lined up one after the other in front of the blue rocking chair as she treated our heads. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. (Head lice) were mentioned in hushed tones, and having that dreaded note from school was as sure to get a lecture and a rampage as wrecking the teen-mobile.
From a very young age, my mother pounded the anti-lice commandments into our heads with such a fury that, to this day, our family jokes about lice spontaneously generating* if any of the “rules” were broken:
The Anti-Lice Commandments (OR ELSE!)
- Thou shalt not touch heads.
- Thou shalt not share hats, combs, hoodie sweatshirts, headbands, hairbrushes, pillows, or ponytail holders.
- Thou shalt not hug in such a way that heads may touch.
- Thou shalt not EVER try on hats at a grocery store.
- Thou shalt not rest your head on the headrest part of the movie theatre chairs.
To an extent, some of these guidelines may have actually kept us from getting head lice, but others were incredibly far-fetched.
So what are lice?
Now that we’ve discussed my personal background with lice (or at least the threat of lice), it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty and talk about these tiny little insects. I guess I should be more specific and say that we’ll be discussing lice as they relate to hat-wearers since that’s a commonly thought of mode of transference.
Lice feed off of human blood and require warmth. Though there are certain types of lice that can infest other areas of the body, we will focus on head lice.
An adult louse (singular form of lice) wants to stay where it is warm, and the food supply is abundant. They cannot jump or fly, and the eggs are literally glued to the hair shaft, so they can’t fall off and into, say, a passerby’s or desk mate’s hair.
What is their lifecycle?
Lice eggs are called nits, and they are less than one millimeter in width. They’re usually white or yellow, and they won’t move when blown on or touched. They typically take about a week to hatch, and then a nymph emerges. Nymphs are about the width of a pinhead, and they will molt three times over the course of a week until they become adults. An adult louse can live about 30 days on a host’s head, but can only live about 1-2 days without a host. They are usually medium colored and about as big as a sesame seed.
What problems can they cause?
Lice don’t carry any diseases, but they are unsightly, annoying, and can cause itching. They are also fairly easy to transmit through person-to-person contact.
How are they transferred?
Lice are most often transferred through head-to-head contact, so the likelihood of your getting lice through a shared hat is very slim (did you hear that, Mom?). It is possible, however, so you should definitely not go around trying on whatever hat you want. In order for a shared hat to give you lice, there would have to be less than a day in between uses, and it would have to be a pregnant female or a group of mix-gender friends hanging out on the same hat. A nit could transfer, I suppose, if the entire hair it was cemented to landed on your head and stayed there until it hatched, but it wouldn’t get very far without another louse with which it could reproduce.
What if you find yourself in that hairy situation?
The long and short of it is this: while highly unlikely that lice will transfer successfully from one person’s head to their hat to your head, it is possible. More likely is the direct, one-on-one contact with an infected person’s head, pillowcase, towel, or hairbrush that was used immediately prior to your use.
In the event that you do get lice, don’t panic. There are several over-the-counter treatment options that you can use to get rid of the bugs. Then you just wash your bedding and other articles that come in contact with your hair (hairbrushes, etc.) in hot water with soap or treat them with a permethrin treatment. If you have more questions about treatment, make sure to talk to a health professional who can advise you about the best course to take in your specific situation.
The anti-lice commandments are good guidelines to follow to keep you more conscious without being anxious about lice. Basically, just use your head to avoid a lousy outcome.
*Lice DO NOT spontaneously generate