Jessica Hall's youngest daughter got lice from a catcher's helmet early this summer.
She didn't panic when she discovered the bugs in her 5-year-old's straight blond hair. Her eldest had once caught lice about a decade ago in elementary school, and it was fairly easy to get rid of.
Hall, an elementary teacher in Independence, Kansas, knew that catching the highly contagious parasite had nothing to do with the cleanliness of her home or children. While there isn't reliable data on how many people get head lice each year in the United States, the CDC estimates 6 million to 12 million infestations occur each year among children 3 to 11 years of age.
So, Hall tried the same approach that worked last time. She bought Nix Lice Treatment, an over-the-counter cream, and applied it. After that, she combed through her daughter's hair and did it again less than a week later. The itching kept coming back.
She treated her kindergartner six or seven times this summer, switching between Rid and Nix, and spending hours combing through her hair each week. The week before school started, her middle child caught it.
Hall started treating them both. She braided both girls' hair and sprayed them with a natural rosemary spray she bought from the hairdresser. She cleaned and washed everything in the house. She treated them with the OTC chemical formulas every week. She spent 10 to 15 hours a week combing out their hair and picking out eggs or bugs. She bought special combs with lights on them, replaced all the hairbrushes, tried special shampoos.
This went on for months. She used the chemical treatments on their scalps anywhere from 15 to 20 times.
She called her pediatrician, who prescribed a thick cream used to treat scabies. She lathered her kids' scalps with it.
The lice came back.
As soon as she would see one of the girls scratch their heads, she would call them over and inspect their scalps. They each would have to sit for an hour and a half each time she combed through their hair.
By October, the family had spent nearly $1,000 and countless hours fighting these bugs. Finally, she said to her husband: "I am done doing this. I am not getting it out. It's not working. All this stuff I'm buying, it's not working."
Her husband searched online and found Heartland Healthy Heads in Liberty, Missouri. It's a lice-removal clinic that uses the FDA-approved device AirAlle, which blows hot air to destroy lice and their eggs. It's been shown to be safe and effective at treating lice.
"I didn't know there was such a place," Hall said. "I would have done it the very first thing."
Her husband took the first available appointment, took the girls out of school and drove 150 miles each way to have them treated.
Cherie Parker, a nurse practitioner and owner of Heartland Health Heads, says she has treated a lot of desperate people. Lice bugs have adapted to the over-the-counter treatments, which don't work anymore. This new strain of super lice has to be treated with different prescription medications or the AirAlle. Their treatment costs $159, which includes a re-check and 30-day guarantee.
Parker says they do about 100 treatments a month. For those who do not live near a treatment center, it's best to get a prescription from a doctor to treat resistent lice.
"Lice has nothing to do with income level or cleanliness," she said.
A study published in the Journal of Medical Entomology earlier this year found almost all lice collected and tested from 48 states had mutations responsible for resistance to the active ingredients in widely used OTC treatments.
"We know the resistance is here," Parker said.
Oh, the resistance was known in the Hall household for the past four months.
Hall says her husband was very excited to see an end to the evenings she had to spend picking bugs out of their daughters' hair.
"It was a little crazy," she said.
They have been lice-free for more than a week, but Hall knows far too well not to start celebrating too soon.
She lost several battles against super lice, but may have won the war.
Unless, of course, someone catches it at school again.