Boiling, delousing, life. (Darlena Cunha)

It couldn’t have been later than 8:30 a.m. one day recently when I got the phone call I’ve been dreading since my kids started school here in balmy Florida.

“Mrs. Cunha? This is the school nurse. You need to come pick up your daughter. She has lice.”

“What!” It was not a question. I literally yelped into the phone, having had an illogical fear of these little bug things chowing on my head since I was a little girl. I never had them myself, but I remember studiously checking my own 8-year-old scalp in the mirror on winter nights when the Connecticut cold made my head dry and itchier. Friends of mine these days would casually mention lice in conversation and laugh at my reaction. As if it wasn’t a big deal. As if a thing that hangs out on your head and eats it and lays its eggs in it isn’t a big deal. I was always horrified.

But I have good news: It’s actually not a big deal.

According to the fact sheet parents received a few days later, and the Centers for Disease Control, six to 12 million children between the ages of 3 and 12 are infested with head lice in the United States each year. Adult lice like to stay behind the ears and at the base of the skull, whereas one can find nits (lice eggs) anywhere on the head, but usually close to the scalp. It takes a week or two for the golden-orange colored nits to hatch. The lice are then nymphs (for another week) before becoming fully fledged. A louse can live outside a human head for up to two days, according to The Nemours Foundation. Unlike other parasites, however, lice do not spread disease with their bites, making them fairly safe, if annoying, pests.

After receiving the phone call, I made my mental to-do list. First, burn down the house and start over. Okay, maybe not. I knew I had to calm down before picking up my child, who can get pretty nervous on her own and didn’t need her mom freaking out over bugs on her head.

That’s the first step when you find out your child has lice. Do not freak out.

Fortunately for us, when I got to the school, I found out my daughter thought this was pretty much the coolest, and was ready to go on a louse-evicting adventure.

We stopped at the pharmacy, where we picked up a lice-killing chemical cream, one of those brushes with the teeth really close together and some lice spray for the stuff I couldn’t boil, bleach or burn. We decided not to go with mayonnaise or Vaseline. I’m all for keeping chemicals away from my kids, but debugging comes first. This is not a problem I want to have to revisit when the lice laugh at the mayo.

It turns out that lice is not a particularly hard problem to solve, however. I threw my daughter in the bath, followed the directions on the container of chemicals and combed her wet hair through with the special brush. It took about three hours because I was meticulous. There would be no nit left unturned. I then did her sister, even though she didn’t have lice. Just in case.

Then I set about deep-cleaning the house. There are studies out there that say lice are not found on floors or in bedding aside from where there is direct contact with the head. I didn’t care. I mean, just in case.

I washed all the clothing in super hot water, and dried them on high heat. The bedding was next, from the pillows to the comforter to the sheets. All of it. I sprayed the mattresses with my new canister of lice killer. I put all the hair ties, the brushes and anything that ever touched my girls’ heads in bleach water. This was a little overzealous. Don’t do it. I ruined about half our hair supply. Did you know that headbands twist and deform when immersed in that strong, corrosive liquid called bleach? I do. Now.

After the bleach treatment, I boiled them, just in case. Yes, there’s a lot of just in case going on here, but I recommend anyone faced with lice go overboard one time so they don’t have to deal with it four times.

Our school has a no-nit policy, which means after kids are sent home with lice, they are not allowed back in until treated. So the next day I brought my daughter to the nurse before opening bell and she went through each follicle with a fine-toothed comb—literally. We were allowed to stay. Our lice were gone. The girls ahead of us, though, weren’t so lucky. Sometimes even the most thorough cleansing doesn’t take the first time.

Remember, if your child gets lice, or if you know other children who have had them, the parasites do not mean those infested are dirty. Even with my illogical fear of the critters, I never judged the people afflicted. Lice actually like clean hair, so if your child contracts a case of them, you’ve done a good job keeping them washed.

It’s not a nightmare. It’s not scary or gross. It just is. And if you tackle it head on, it can be gone in a day. Happy boiling.

Darlena Cunha is a freelance writer. She blogs at Parentwin and can be reached on Twitter @parentwin.

Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, advice and news. Sign up here for our newsletter.

You might also be interested in:
Kids come to school sick because we can’t stay home

What’s the definition of a productive parent?