Any parent with young children has a visceral reaction to the word lice. When you receive that dreaded note home, the one that says someone in your child's class has lice, you fly into a low-key panic and become extra vigilant because: "OMG! What if my kid has lice?!"
The reality of the situation, however, is that they're not actually a menace. According to HealthyChildren.org, a website from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), lice don't cause serious illness or carry disease. So while there may be social stigma attached to lice in the same way lice attach to a child's hair, the truth is that lice can happen to anyone with hair. Dirty hair, clean hair, rich hair, poor hair, curly hair, straight hair: any hair can provide a home to head lice.
Anyone who suspects their child might have lice should see a doctor to be sure, according to the AAP, and to obtain proper instruction (and potentially prescriptions) on how to deal with the problem, which can be facilitated at home. And while your kid may think this means they get a little vacation from going to school, the AAP states that while some schools have policies that keep children with lice out of the classroom, both the AAP and the National Association of School Nurses disagree with these policies, since lice are typically only spread from close, prolonged head-to-head contact. Casual contact, like sharing a hat or brush with another child, is unlikely to spread lice.
But while they may be harmless and unlikely to casually spread, the fact remains: lice are a nightmare. If your child is diagnosed, you will likely go through the following familiar steps of terror and sorrow:
Stage 1: Discovery
Lice, about the size of a sesame seed fully grown, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are hard to spot. But when you do, you immediately pluck those tiny bastards from your child's scalp and make a hyperventilating visual scan of the rest of their head. You've lived in fear of this possibility since you had this kid and now that the day appears to have arrived your swirling panic descends into full-blown madness.
Stage 2: Panicked Consultations
Deep down, you know exactly what this is and what it will mean for your household, but you don't want to believe it so you take a picture and send it to all your mom friends. If you are part of an online parent group, you ask them for help, solidarity, a kind lie that would fail to convince you that what you've discovered on your child's cranium isn't lice but would nevertheless be comforting, and more help.
Stage 3: Horrified Realization
Whether other parents tactfully and sympathetically confirm your suspicions and deepest fears or you just know, in your heart, that this is really happening, it's a shattering moment.
Stage 4: Contemplation Of Burning It All To The Ground
In one last feisty bit of hope, you think to yourself, "We have fire insurance. We could probably just burn the house down! That would take care of all the lice and then we could deal with getting everything back later. And the kid? We can shave the kid. Hair grows back! Then everything will be OK, right?!"
Stage 5: Cry
Just, you know, sob. And when your sweet, lice-infested child inevitably attempts to offer you a hug for comfort (which normally you'd be all over) push that lousy little urchin away because hell no they are not getting anywhere near your locks.
True, lice don't jump, but you're not going to take any chances. When you finally pull yourself together, make an appointment and take your kid to the doctor, just to make it this nightmare realized official. When they tell you what you already know, don't react. I mean, what's the point? At this point, you're dead inside, my friend.
Stage 6: Frenzied Googling
As Sun Tzu says in The Art of War, "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." And you'll very likely have 100 battles since a lice infestation can mean hundreds of bugs and nits. So you read every article you can stomach (and maybe even make the mistake of watching YouTube videos of heads full of lice).
Stage 7: Consider Expensive Professionals
As soon as you began your online research about lice, you realize you're receiving ads for professional delousers. For a fee, these folks will come in with their expertise and magic medicines and combs and can-do attitudes and rid your life of these six-legged invaders.
For a fee.
A high fee.
A month's worth of groceries fee.
A fee you probably can't justify right now, but seems understandable considering just a few minutes ago you were ready to burn your entire house down.
Stage 8: Arming Yourself
In the midst of the woeful resignation that you can't get someone else to do this for you, you go pick up medicated shampoos and hair treatments and special combs that will help you brush away the (hopefully dead) lice carcasses and nits. You buy an extra multi-gallon container of laundry detergent because everything is going through a hot wash. Twice. You buy a big fancy bar of chocolate, because you deserve a little something nice when you're going through such unjust agony.
Stage 9: Delousing Your Kid
You think back to reading Dante's Inferno in college, where Hell is made up of various levels that become more and more horrifying the deeper you go. This is definitely one of the tortures in your own personal hell. You can imagine doing this for the rest of eternity, because it already feels like you've spent eternity doing it. Thank God for Netflix, because there's no way your kid would sit through this process without the glowing comfort of Tru and the Rainbow Kingdom.
Stage 10: Whirlwind Cleaning
Everything must be clean! Pure! You cannot go through all that hair combing only to have your kid pick up a stray louse (which can live a few days even without a source of blood for food) and have to do it all over again.
Stage 11: Phantom Itching
Even though they're gone now, thank goodness, you can't think of them without reflexively scratching your head. Is it real and random, or are you imagining it? Or are they back and now they're coming for you, their one true mortal enemy, the one who destroyed their original home?
Stage 12: Living In Fear
You'll have nightmares. You'll dread "Crazy Hat Day" at school, in case your kid tries on someone else's Cat in the Hat stove-pipe hat (even though that's rarely how one gets lice). You never want to do this again and the thought that you might means you'll never really stop living in perpetual fear of these tiny horrors.