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How to combat a case of psychosomatic lice after receiving the dreaded letter from school


One would think the worst part of lice would be actually having (gag) lice. Not true for me. Since my oldest started elementary school, the biggest little injustice in my life has been opening an email that reads, “There has been one reported case of lice in first grade” — and feeling my scalp begin to crawl. Then I spend the following two weeks obsessing when the wind blows through my hair or my toddler tries on a fire helmet at the children’s museum. The terror descends around 10 times a year, between elementary school, after-school programs, preschool and camps..

I squirm because I know my kids will sit alongside peers wearing crowns of unborn lice now that most school districts exclude only children with live bugs. The American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines recommending abandonment of “no-nit” policies make sense. Eggs firmly affix to shafts of hair and even if one were to hatch during recess and wind up on another child, lice present no health hazard.

Still, my children’s proximity to nits rubs me the wrong way. And rubs again. Now over there. And here. And back there again. Even if no one in our family shows signs of pediculosis, I itch.

Known by psychologists as a “hysterical condition,” psychosomatic itching is nonetheless a “genuine physical affliction caused by emotional anxiety,” says San Francisco-based psychologist Juli Fraga. That means the problem is real. Ish.

Luckily, there are ways to vanquish phantom parasitic insects — and they’re much more pleasant than the protocol for live ones.

Prevent dry scalp

My fear doesn’t need much help making my head itch, since it’s already dry, thanks to the hormonal fluctuations of pregnancy and nursing. Dandruff also makes it more difficult for my husband to rule out lice on a visual inspection.

Maritza Buelvas of The Everygirl recommends combating dry scalp with pre-wash treatments such as scalp massage and DIY hair masks. She also suggests trying a natural shampoo, topical spot treatments and general hydration. If dryness rises to the level of scalp psoriasis, doctors can inject steroids into problem areas, prescribe medication or recommend phototherapy involving lasers or natural sunlight. Tea tree oil offers a win-win, reportedly both hydrating the head and some say actually repelling lice.

Restore perspective

Head Hunters, a removal company in Atlanta, says: “If your head did not itch the minute before hearing the word lice, . . . the itching you are experiencing is in your head, not on your head.” For another good reality check, I ask myself whether my sleep loss comes from trouble falling asleep or if I’m actually being awoken. The latter should only happen with live critters.

Though some folks with lice remain asymptomatic, when they do itch, it’s usually specific to small bumps that stay put, such as mosquito bites. Genuine crawling sensations also tend to be localized, feeling like tiny, slow ants moving through one’s hair. Generalized itchiness, I constantly remind myself, is more likely to be psychosomatic.

Drink alcohol

If sober self-assessment doesn’t work, I drink a glass of wine. Maybe three. I try to relax and otherwise engage my consciousness. If I manage to focus on a conversation about my recently divorced friend’s new paramour or lose myself in George Clooney’s suave mischievousness for a few hours only to have the itching restart as soon as the call ends or the credits roll, I have my answer.

Blow-dry hair

Here’s the thing that keeps me scratching my head. They could be in there. Lurking. Feasting.

Since I live in the city, I can visit a lice-specific salon such as Hair Fairies. In-home services also offer thorough manual combing. But I tried that one time, and it cost me almost $300 to hear that none of my children had lice.

There is another way. Just as only abstinence can prevent 100 percent of unwanted pregnancies, only painstaking removal of bugs and eggs can ensure complete eradication of head lice. That doesn’t mean other methods are worthless.

An article in Pediatrics entitled “An Effective Nonchemical Treatment for Head Lice: A Lot of Hot Air” reports the results of a study. Using a handheld or wall-mounted blow-dryer turns out to be inferior to a device known as the LouseBuster, “an institutionally based machine.” That said, blow-drying killed some of both live lice and eggs.

Now, whenever I itch, I blow-dry my hair and congratulate myself on having desiccated potential eggs and maybe some lice. If my head still crawls the next day, I do it again knowing the odds only improve each time.

Applying heat to my hair may not adequately treat an infestation, but it has been 100 percent effective at putting my mind at ease — which, of course, is what stops psychosomatic itching.

Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mom of three and freelance writer in San Francisco. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at

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