Supposedly 1 in 10 school children catch head lice at some point in their educational career. I managed to play those odds and win during my own childnood - I don't even remember any outbreaks in my classes - but ever since my kids started school, I've been waiting for our turn to come. I knew a preschool family in which every member caught the bugs and had a horrible time getting rid of them. During our two years of public school, I received state-mandated lice alerts concerning cases in the school, but they appeared not to be in my kid's classroom, and we were spared.
Then came the infestation of 2011-2012. Oh, my goodness. The bugs started in the 3rd or 4th grade (my eldest is a 3rd grader) and would. not. go. away. For a while, it looked like we were ok, but on the advice of a fellow 3rd grade parent, I bought the uber-awesome Nit-Free Terminator lice comb, wet my boy's super-thick hair down, sprayed it with conditioner, and went to work. I wasn't really sure what I was looking for and expected eggs to look like little white dots, and the bugs to look like fleas, perhaps. I had noticed one or two grains of dirt on his scalp that looked unusual, but they didn't look like what I imagined a nit to look like. A couple of them came off in the comb, and I wiped them onto a white cloth. Was it dirt? It looked like dirt. It didn't look like a bug. I took a photo using my macro lens, zoomed waaayyyyy in, and there, on the LCD screen, was something that looked like this:
No bigger than a comma in real life. A dot with a tail. And suddenly, looking at this thing on the back of the camera, I got it. Ohhhh, that's what I'm looking for. THAT's a nit.
I found a few more of them, as well as one or two crawly full-grown lice:
The bug was tiny. Smaller than a flea. Barely bigger than the nits. I took some tape and picked the lice and nits up off of my cloth, then sealed them to a piece of paper, so I could get a photo.
We got lucky, and after the second day of combing (we combed every day for two weeks) there were no more on his head, and they didn't come back. None of the rest of us were infested, probably because we caught it early. THANK GOODNESS. The third and fourth grades continued to battle the bugs for over a month, and finally, all was calm.
Or was it?
Reports started coming in from the kindergarten in late April. Oh no! I checked Reese's head, didn't see anything worth worrying about, and left it at that. Foolish woman. Didn't I remember that you don't see them until you use the nit comb on wet hair? One night at bedtime I did another check, and noticed a speck of dirt on Reese's nape, then another the same shape and size as the first. Hmmm. Time for the comb. I wet him down, ran the comb through, wiped the comb, checked the cloth. Nits? Took a photo, blew it up. Yeah, nits. Here we go again.
It was 8pm when I found the nits, 9 when the poor combed-through kid finally got to bed. I kept him home the next morning, and asked him if he'd like to look at his nits under our microscope. While I was getting the little buggers into focus, I made several totally awesome discoveries. First, some of those nits were actually hatched lice, not eggs. Second, they were smaller than the lice I'd seen before, with different proportions and softer curves. This is why I thought they were nits. It turns out they're nymphs, a young form of the louse. Finally, and most awesome of all, one of the nymphs was still alive under the cellophane tape...and I could see its digestive system working! It occurred to me that the telephoto lens of my point-and-shoot camera might fit into the eyepiece of the scope - and it did, perfectly - and I caught the awesomeness on video:
Way. Cool. I love how you can see the tiny latch-like pincers flexing. Seeing them, you can understand why lice are so hard to get out of hair. Those legs are built to grab on and hang on. The stuff gurling in the louse's digestive system is its most recent meal - i.e., Reese's blood. Some people have asked questions about the blue filaments - they are not human hair. They are lint/fuzz that stuck to the tape when I picked up the louse off the cloth wipe.
you know they would totally wear Groucho glasses if only they came in small-enough sizes
Because I was so thoroughly geeked-out, I called up the kindergarten teacher to ask if she would like me to bring the louse, the nits, the microscope, and the video to school when I came by to pick up preschoolers, so that I could show the class. Many of the kids had had lice, but the bugs were still fairly mysterious to most of them. An insect that's hard to distinguish from specks of dirt and lint is a little difficult to visualize and understand.
There are probably not many schools who would be open to allowing a parent to bring in live lice for show-and-tell, much less be excited about it, and this is just one of the many reasons why I adore my kids' school. The teachers had set aside a space in their "studio" room so that three students at a time could come and take a look and ask questions. Virtually every child was fascinated as they watched the video and took a look through the microscope and another small magnifier. Several parents who have both preschool and kindergarten children also came by, curious to know what a nit looks like - how big is it, really? I was glad I had brought the paper with taped-down nits, so that they could see what we're all looking for when we comb and comb and comb through our kids' hair:
That photo is about two times as big as life-size. Nits are TINY. They're specks. The hatched bugs are tiny, too - there are two in that photo. Can you find them?
I was SO in my element - I love nature, I love discoveries, and I love teaching. Science is cool, man. And now I'm bringing all this good stuff to you, in case you've ever wondered what a nit looks like, or how a louse's feet work. They're really incredible insects. I'm glad a couple of days' worth of combing took care of them again, and that we didn't have any repeats, and that the kindergarten class kicked the infestation much faster than the 3rd and 4th grades did...but if you have to deal with parasites, you can at least enjoy it a little and learn something new and fascinating.