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Look what the kids have brought home from school...
One Christmas my children brought home some uninvited guests and they have been reluctant to leave us ever since. Why do they stay? Perhaps we are wonderful hosts, or maybe it is the warm, hospitable environment we provide for them which more than caters for their requirements. They expect us to supply them with free food and shelter twenty four hours a day, plus clean bedding every night, for which they give us absolutely nothing in return. In fact, they leave us feeling quite lousy, and at times we are almost pulling our hair out in desperation to be rid of them. Sometimes they go and leave us in peace for a while, then, just when we think they have gone for certain they are back again with a vengeance, bringing their friends and relatives along too. For some reason they have taken a distinct disliking to my rapidly-balding husband, choosing not to trouble him at all, but the rest of my family have had to put up with their constant presence both day and night. They've been shopping with us, accompanied us on holiday and they even want to take a shower and sleep with us!
How can I give them the brush off for good? - "Throw them out, change the locks," one might suggest, "They are just parasites who deserve to be given their marching orders!" But for them getting back is a walkover.
Now, to get down to the nitty-gritty of all this: we have had to resort to drastic measures in order to wash these visitors out of our hair. Are you still scratching your head in confusion as to their identity, or have you by now guessed?
Pediculus humanus capitis
Their proper Latin name is Pediculus humanus capitis which in translation literally means "peculiar to the human head" - the common head louse. A creature I knew next to nothing about until my children unwittingly brought them home from school one day.
I'm sure it was the head teacher's (no pun intended) fault for packing everyone so tightly into the assembly hall to view the Xmas pantomime. The head louse does not jump like a flea, it just walks when two heads are in close proximity, and one individual specimen can visit several heads in a day, - no wonder outbreaks of lice infestation are so prevalent in junior schools.
These tiny insects are true parasites, about the same size as a flea; they have a life cycle of roughly forty days and are wonderfully adapted to their only natural habitat - the human head. They possess the ability to change colour in much the same way as a chameleon, thus avoiding detection in different shades of hair. They prefer hair that is clean and fine, since they have difficulty in clasping their legs round the shafts of thicker and coarser hair. A mature head louse lays about six eggs a day and glues them on to the hair shaft with an adhesive as strong as super glue, which no amount of shampooing can loosen. It can also inject a powerful anaesthetic into the bloodstream of the host as another way of remaining undetected.
The sole diet of a head louse is human blood, to which it has unlimited access; they can often be found in the hair directly above the ears and at the nape of the neck where it is easy for them to tap into a rich supply. Forget Dracula - these creatures are the nearest thing to a vampire.
No wonder these minute creatures have survived with us since the dawn of humanity into the twenty first century, one could almost re-name them "Millennium bugs." Although they pose no real threat to general health and well being, they can be intensely frustrating and difficult to get rid of. Every effort to eradicate head lice has failed dismally; each time a new pesticide is developed they quickly build up resistance.
Nit nurses are no longer employed, since they too proved to be an ineffectual solution.
Expensive shampoos and lotions do not usually work since they only succeed in killing the live insects, but not the eggs. Nit combs too, are useless in removing the very tiny, not yet fully grown lice which are still minuscule enough to pass through the teeth of the comb unharmed.
After a considerable amount of trial and error I have devised my own method of dealing with the problem, which so far appears to be working. Short of us all shaving our heads and joining the Hare Krishna Movement, I have found that the easiest way to be free of head lice is to brush the hair. And scalp vigorously with a good quality hairbrush over a pale-coloured sink. If done properly, every louse will be brushed out, even the smallest ones, but one has to repeat this process once, or preferably twice a day for a at least a week so that newly hatched lice can be removed before they are mature enough to lay eggs of their own. Check your children's hair at least once a week thereafter as a preventative measure.
I have heard some rather drastic methods on how to remain free of head lice(decapitation being the most severe, but somewhat impractical in my opinion. The next most "shocking" advice came from the pharmacist at a well known chemist:
"Why don't you electrocute them," he suggested.
"What, the kids you mean?" I replied, aghast at the very thought.
"No, no, the head lice, you can buy an electric comb for only twenty five pounds." He enthusiastically showed me the item. "You just comb through the hair with it, and it will send an electrical impulse through the lice, which stuns, then kills them."
"Mmm... interesting," I said but I didn't have twenty five pounds to spare and was sceptical of its efficiency anyway.
My eighty two year old mother had never seen a louse before (apart from my father, she says) so I thought at her advanced age it was an experience not to be missed. At first she didn't believe me (knowing more than anyone, that I am a born practical joker) when I told her that her Grand children's hair was teeming with more wildlife than the local zoological gardens. I placed a live specimen on her kitchen table while she peered at it through her magnifying glass.
"Oooh, it really is one isn't it? Oh look, it's wiggling its little legs! How can you come here and visit me when you're all infested with these things - you should all be in quarantine! I don't want any parasites in my house."
Then I reminded her of the moths which have slowly chomped their way through the fur stole she has had hanging in her wardrobe since before the Blitz, and the larvae of beetles which have all but demolished the suite of bedroom furniture she was given as a wedding present.
"What about your woodworm?" I said accusingly.
"It's not my woodworm." She retaliated very much on the defensive now, "I haven't got it"
"No, but your furniture certainly has" I pointed out.
"Oh well, it will last me my lifetime" she muttered, shrugging her shoulders.
"Just as well you haven't got a wooden leg!" I joked in response. Eventually she saw the funny side, and we both marvelled that even in these days of advanced technology it is still the tiniest, and seemingly insignificant of things which can sometimes prove the most troublesome.
I told her about the tiny corn flies which irritate me no end by squeezing their tiny bodies inside clock cases and picture frames. And also the wasps which hatched out one June morning and came down into the lounge from the nest they had built in our chimney breast. I dread to think what might have happened had they hatched out in the night - we could all have been stung to death in our beds.
I will say one final thing about the head louse, and this is a true story:
Long ago in a small, Scandinavian town, the humble head louse was put to good use. The council could not make up their minds between two contenders for the office of Mayor, so one solitary insect was placed in the middle of the Town Hall's table. The long beards of two of the town's most prominent men were draped over the table's edge and the owner of the beard which the louse scrambled into was then instantly declared the new Mayor. So you see, one of these tiny creatures could even have changed the course of history.
Getting down to the nitty-gritty of things:
© 2015 Stella Kaye