Lice happened twice to Brianne Ball’s family, and it was a commitment for everyone involved: her three daughters, her husband, herself. One child would come home infested, and it would spread to the whole family. And, as daughters put their heads together, it would spread again.
The lice proved especially commited, chemical treatment after treatment, painstaking comb-out after comb-out.
During one infestation, “we spent probably six months in lice world, no joke,” Ball said. “Just when I thought we were done, we’d find another nit.”
So Ball is sensitive to the feelings of the customers who call her to pack up her nit-busting machine – it resembles a vacuum cleaner, with a long hose that blows hot air – and come to their homes to rid their families of the scourge that’s plagued human heads since there have been humans.
“Usually somebody calls in a panic, usually teary,” said Ball, of Coeur d’Alene, who teaches elementary school part-time in Post Falls. “They’ve tried chemicals. They’ve tried mayonnaise.” They’ve tried petroleum jelly, and they’ve tried worse on their children’s heads, she said, lowering her voice, including gasoline.
Ball’s machine, called the AirAllé (formerly the LouseBuster), is at the center of her business, Northwest Lice Treatment. Business has been good since she launched it last spring, she said, driving to meet customers throughout Coeur d’Alene and Spokane and and as far as Sandpoint and Moses Lake. October was a busy month, she said, with about 17 people treated.
Ball said she believes professional treatment is the future in the fight against lice, often a tearful and frustrating experience for families. Adding to the misery: Lice remain swathed in stigma, despite assurances from schools, nurses and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the parasitic bugs’ presence is unrelated to cleanliness.Trisha Lutey is the sole nit-picker at Lutey’s Hair Angels, which the cosmetologist launched about six years ago as a side business. As part of the work, she’s collecting lice for University of Massachusetts researchers studying lice’s resistance to the shampoos that are supposed to kill them.
Lutey uses a pesticide-free shampoo on customers’ scalps before, for $75 an hour, combing out the bugs and eggs. But a big part of the job is educating families – amid conflicting information online – on how to fight infestation. Families should focus on their hair, not their homes, she said: “The bugs aren’t living in your house. They’re living on your head. The most common way to (get) head lice is head-to-head contact.”
While parents could do for their children what she does, many feel better calling in a pro, Lutey said.
“Some families have had head lice prior, and it took them forever to get rid of it,” she said. “Or they never got rid of it. Having a professional that knows what they’re doing gives them piece of mind.”
Ball hopes to open a treatment center by the end of 2014, so customers can come to her.
Entrepreneurs in larger metropolitan areas already have opened lice treatment centers, Ball said, offering rows of seats and staffed by professional “nit-pickers” and employees armed with the hot-air devices like Ball’s that kill lice eggs, or nits, by dehydrating them. Nits, which feel like grains of sand stuck to single stands of hair, are harder to kill than the hatched bugs.
Cleared by the Food and Drug Administration, an early version of the device produced the highest louse and egg “mortality” rates in a comparison study published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, in 2006.
The study, conducted by the developers of the LouseBuster, compared six methods of using hot air, including various blow-dryers, to kill lice and eggs. The parasite expert at the University of Utah and the engineers who developed the device sought a hot-air solution because the three other approaches generally in use – chemical shampoos, special louse combs and “home remedies” – were ineffective or impractical, they wrote.
Lice had been growing resistant to the chemical shampoos, which aren’t very good at killing eggs anyway, the authors wrote. Most parents lacked the time or patience to spend the many hours over several days to comb out all the lice and eggs in their children’s hair. And there was little proof that potentially harmful home remedies – including bug spray and kerosene along with mayonnaise and petroleum jelly – were effective.
The LouseBuster, on the other hand, killed 98 percent of eggs and 80 percent of hatched eggs in that study. A follow-up study, published in the Journal of Medical Entomology in 2011, produced similar results.
Larada Sciences, whose network of “lice professionals” operate from coast to coast, now says the machine it renamed AirAllé kills 99.2 percent of lice eggs.
Ball claims a 100 percent success rate among her customers so far.
She said parents are often close to desperate by the time they call her. Being able to help them, she said, is “kind of a feel-good job.”
Ball said she can coach parents over the phone on trying to rid their families of lice on their own, and she’ll do head checks, offer house-cleaning advice, and perform careful comb-outs even for those who don’t want the hot-air treatment, which costs $165 a person. But comb-outs require parents to follow up with their own rigorous combing sessions for at least a week, Ball said, and there are no guarantees.
For those who want the hot-air treatment, Ball takes about 30 minutes to follow a set pattern on the head, exposing all areas to the heated air delivered through a single-use applicator at the end of the hose.
She follows up by “combing out all the casualties,” she said, and applying a bug-suffocating solution to kill the hatched bugs that survived the hot air.
Angela, a mother in Prosser, paid Ball $420, including travel charges, to meet her and her three daughters at her in-laws’ home in Moses Lake to rid them of lice.
At her wit’s end, Angela said, she’d pay it again. She didn’t want her last name name published for fear of embarrassing her kids, for whom a case of lice would be “social suicide,” she said.
Angela thinks her oldest daughter got infested with lice at camp in July. They found the bugs in August and tried in vain to eradicate them using over-the-counter chemical shampoos until calling Ball around the start of the school year.
“These little buggers, they don’t die,” Angela said. “They just keep multiplying.”
Ball found that only the two oldest girls’ hair was infested. Angela said Ball used a magnifying glass to show her the “wiggly things” and offered advice on ridding her home of the bugs and eggs. She learned that a hot dryer can kill them on bedding, for example, she said – you don’t have to wash everything first.
That itchy feeling you might have, just by reading about lice? Ball is over it.
And while she checks her own hair for lice weekly, just in case, she said she never worried much about the stigma associated with the insects.
“Honestly, I never thought twice about it,” she said, “until my daughter said, ‘Mom, I’m not going to like you on Facebook.’ ”
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