RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
And I'm John Ydstie.
Today in Your Health: fighting one of the most annoying, yet harmless childhood maladies - head lice. The tiny bugs are one of the top reasons kids miss school, and yet there's no foolproof remedy.
NPR's Allison Aubrey and Nell Boyce report on techniques people use to pick them out, shampoo them off or even smother them to death.
ALLISON AUBREY: If you want to talk head lice, it's important to get the terminology down. One lice bug, singular, is called a louse - root of the word lousy. And then there are nits - the eggs of lice. A person who picks nits out of hair is called a nitpicker - a title that most moms take on reluctantly.
Ms. ROBIN MEAGER(ph): Keep your head down, sweetie.
AUBREY: Robin Meager is searching for nits in her 8-year-old daughter Natalie's hair. If she catches the eggs before they hatch, she can prevent another outbreak.
Ms. MEAGER: They like to hang out close to your hairline, I think, so let's look back here and see if we see anything.
AUBREY: Natalie - sitting at the family's dining room table, and her black hair falls into the back of an upholstered chair. Her mom has turned on the bright chandelier light, and she's using a pet comb with long, metal teeth to inspect when she spots one.
Ms. R. MEAGER: Yes, that is a nit egg.
AUBREY: A tiny egg, no bigger than a tip of a ballpoint pen, is stuck to a single strand of Natalie's hair - the sticky substance that cements it there is made by the mother louse.
Ms. R. MEAGER: You feel this little bump on the hair, and it doesn't come off easily at all because these - I guess this mama lice know what they're doing when they lay their eggs.
AUBREY: Getting these nits out is key to keeping Natalie in school. She's been sent home from school five times after the last year, as have some of her classmates. Administrators figure a no-nit policy is the best way to contain the spread. But it's a huge pain for families - parents miss work and kids miss class time.
One study found that 12 to 24 million school days are lost annually. So this time, Robin Meager is determined to get every last nit.
Ms. R. MEAGER: Okay, brace yourself, hon.
AUBREY: She's found that fastest way to get the nit is to yank out the strand of hair.
Ms. NATALIE MEAGER: Ow, that hurts.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. R. MEAGER: Sorry.
AUBREY: There's a little drama, but mostly Meager says her daughter's been a trooper. She's been through multiple washes with medicated shampoos, which removed most of the live bugs. Studies show these work well until the lice become resistant.
In terms of prevention, lice expert Richard Pollack of the Harvard School of Public Health says there's no real trick short of isolating your kid.
Dr. RICHARD POLLACK (Harvard School of Public Health): The more social your child is, the more friends he or she may have - lots of head touching or rug wrestling, those sorts of things - the more likely it is that they may encounter a head louse.
AUBREY: This is why younger children, usually those in elementary grades, seem to pass it around. Pollack says since lice are blood-sucking human parasites that live only on the hair of people, there's just one way to transmit them: through direct head to head contact.
Mr. POLLACK: The commonly held belief, which is folklore, is that head lice are shared through things like combs and brushes and hats and helmets.
AUBREY: Lice can hitch a ride on these personal items, so it's possible they spread some cases, but Pollack explains lice cannot fly or jump, and once they're off the scalp, they move slowly and die within hours.
Since head lice don't transmit disease, Pollack views them as a nuisance. Usually the only symptom, as Natalie Meager can attest to, is itchiness.
Ms. N. MEAGER: Yeah, you could be itching - it's so much like you can never have a break with - from your hands itching your head.
AUBREY: For moms who are too grossed out or too busy to pick nits, there's a new option. Franchises of professional nitpickers are popping up around the country. Maria Botham runs Los Angeles-based Hair Fairies.
Ms. MARIA BOTHAM (Owner, Hair Fairies): We are a salon solely dedicated to the removal of head lice.
AUBREY: There's still quite a social stigma attached to lice. Many people believe, erroneously, that the bugs are somehow related to hygiene or cleanliness.
Ms. BOTHAM: Most of the clients who come in to the salon are just devastated.
AUBREY: Using shampoos, creams and nitpicking, Botham says her Hair Fairies can usually knock out an infestation during three hour-long sessions.
Ms. BOTHAM: It's a manual, laborious process.
AUBREY: So to keep kids distracted, the Hair Fairies provide Gameboys, DVDs and toys. The treatment costs $75 an hour and comes with a temporary guarantee.
Ms. BOTHAM: We decided that it was going to be a 14-day period.
AUBREY: Just a few days longer than it takes for a new batch of nits to hatch. After that, clients pay again for new outbreaks. And since it's hard for kids to stop putting their heads together, the Hair Fairies have lots of repeat customers.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.