Dear AsKA Mom/Mum,
I think – well, I’m 98% sure – I have lice! Hubby checked, but he’s useless when in comes to these things. 1. Should I go to work before treating them? 2. What OTC treatment can I get here? K
Lice. Considering how harmless they are in the greater scheme of things, they have the ability to strike fear into the very hearts of hair-having people worldwide – not to mention cause phantom itching. Proof: my head went from fine to itchy in the time it took me to write “lice”. No – they are not ectoparasitic insects to be fooled with. Unfortunately, they’re quite common. While recent stats are lacking for Japan, an estimated one in ten Canadian school children will experience pediculosis – a lice infestation – over the course of a school year. Considering lice prefer clean hair, it’s hard to imagine that school children in Japan – perhaps one of the most frequently bathed groups of children in the world – would be any less likely to have the little bloodsuckers holiday on their heads. Being common, however, doesn’t mean that they’re easy to deal with – both on the eradication front and on the social one. So what does one do to send the little buggers to a (hopefully) early death, and to emerge – stigma- and PTS-free – from the scourge? We asked our K-A mothers for some advice.
First up, let’s talk diagnosis. To determine whether someone has lice, a thorough head and neck check is required (don’t forget behind the ears). Finding nits (the eggs) without nymphs or fully-grown adults doesn’t necessarily mean lice is present, but according to the American Center for Disease Control, if you discover eggs attached to hairs within ¼ inch of the scalp, there is a good chance hatched lice are hiding somewhere. If the eggs are more than ¼ inch from the scalp, the infestation could be an old one – hardly reassuring.
If the evidence is overwhelming, it’s time to treat, and here H.S. starts us off with a little Japanese to help at the pharmacy: lice are called atamajirami (頭虱/アタマジラミ). She also gives us the name of the most common Japanese anti-lice product, Sumithrin (“sumisurin”), made by insecticide specialist Kincho, though its effectiveness is debated by several mothers (and supported by reports that lice are becoming resistant to some forms of insecticide). R.G. also notes that the comb included with it is mediocre.
Most mothers agree that the comb is king, but note that it is time consuming, especially for those with thick hair. When it comes to long vs. short hair, there is agreement that both are difficult, with the only difference being short hair makes it easier to pick the eggs out. R.G. stresses that it is “hard work, time and combing that fixes (the infestation).”
While abroad, you might be encouraged to see your doctor for help, however, N.I. explains that in Japan, doctors won’t do much beyond confirming your suspicions and prescribing a shampoo, which as previously mentioned, isn’t 100%. She notes that, unlike the comb and conditioner treatment, the shampoo is to be used on hair that has not been conditioned, and that conditioner shouldn’t be used for the duration of your shampoo use. Proving once again her expert status, N.I. shares a non-toxic treatment, Quit Nits, available on iHerb (complete four-piece kit; preventative spray) Again, it isn’t 100% effective and she reminds us that “the comb is your best weapon; trust me on that one.”
Another non-toxic treatment is the olfactory-pleasing olive oil and geranium essential oil combo used by E.L. The hatched lice are smothered by the oil, and in combination with twice-daily combing to catch the eggs (crush those suckers), the lice should be gone within a week.
As far as the home front is concerned, while N.I. suggests no hugs or sharing towels and pillows, as lice die within a day or two of falling off a host, your home shouldn’t be in too much trouble. R.G. agrees with the “treat the head, not your home” strategy, but suggests pillows, towels and bedding should be disinfected – it can’t hurt, and will likely make you feel better. N.I. agrees – “for a while, I would take all pillow cases, towels, sheets, etc., and pop them in the dryer every single morning for 20 minutes.” If you are one of the lucky few in Japan with a dryer, give yourself a pat on the back for investing in one. For the rest of us, it might take a trip to the laundromat, or a soak in hot (55C or hotter) water.
When it comes to timeline, N.I.’s experience is that it takes roughly one week to clear a head – an estimate supported by E.L. However, when you’re treating yourself, things get dicey. Combing your own hair – or finding someone to do a thorough job for you – is no easy task. If you do find yourself fighting a losing battle, do what L.K. did – swallow your pride and ask your hairdresser. If yours is as kind as hers, he or she will give you or your kids a thorough combing after hours.
Reassuringly, N.I. shares that lice is hard for adults to spread to others, as it requires sustained head-to-head contact. As such, she doesn’t believe work should pose a problem, as long as there is no close physical contact (hugs) or clothing contact. When it comes to the kiddos, although lice is classified as a Class 3 school infectious disease and school principals are within their rights to prohibit suffering children from attending school, according to the Japanese National Institute of Infectious Disease (NIID), it usually doesn’t come to that. Just lay down the law – no sharing hats, ribbons, coats or anything else that goes near the head or neck, no tête-à-têtes secret sharing, and – a new one to the lice prevention rule book – no group selfies. If you know lice is around, in addition to the previously mentioned no-no’s, it might be a good idea to, if school rules allow it, tightly braid long hair to prevent it fluttering around in the wind and possibly coming into accidental contact with an infected head.
Of course, prevention is much better than treatment, and here, vigilance is key. If you notice your kids scratching their heads, take note and give those noggins a thorough check. If you see any brown or white seed-like objects, break out your comb, conditioner and can-do attitude, and send hubby to the pharmacy (or online). Even if nothing’s amiss, however, you might want to check regularly just to be on the safe side. And while lice prefer clean hair, don’t take this to mean you ought to stop washing. Though not clinically proven to work, anecdotal evidence suggests that using hair gel, hair spray or tea tree oil, all of which make hair slippery and harder for lice to grip, can help prevent infestation.
When it comes to the social side of things, as is often the case, reactions were all over the board. Some mothers, like M.O., found that lice weren’t seen as a big deal at all, with much more acceptance compared to other countries. This was echoed by N.I., who experienced no judgment or the dreaded “creepy looks.” Not so for other mothers, unfortunately. V.Y. was hit with the particularly soul-crushing “oh, a lot of foreigners have head lice, don’t they?” response when she informed her school’s nurse. R.G. has felt similar gaikokujin (foreigner)-shaming, finding the Japanese to be quite judgmental and believing it to be a sign of dirtiness (likely confusion between head lice and body lice, which, according to the NIID, tends to occur in unhygienic settings, can spread several different diseases, and was a major problem until the 1950s). So, as with most things, whether you are met with understanding smiles or shiroime – those cold white eyes of judgment – seems to be a matter of where you are and whom you come across.
To end, some positive thoughts – hard though it is while battling in the trenches, try to look on the bright side – head lice is not known to spread disease, and that is something to be pleased with. Take it even further, à la R.G., and think of it as a time to return to your roots – nothing beats a little primate bonding to bring families together.
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