Posted Jan. 19, 2015, at 6:54 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 19, 2015, at 11:39 a.m.
Last summer, 11 members of Waterville resident Mary Collar’s family began itching. They had spent weekends together swimming, laughing and playing in the sun at their family camp. But they soon found out they shared more than good memories. They also all had head lice.
The wingless insects spend their lives feeding on human blood and residing on hairy scalps, and they often spread quickly in families who spend time huddled closely together sharing everything from towels to hats to hair ties.
After two re-infestations, hundreds of dollars spent on chemical treatments and even more hours spent killing the adult lice and combing out eggs, the bugs were gone for Collar’s family. But a desire to help other families in similar situations led Collar to turn a terrible experience into a new venture.
In early January, she opened All About Lice, a one-stop shop for families and individuals who have contracted head lice and are seeking treatment and prevention products.
“Had there been resources around, I would have used them,” Collar said. “I would’ve given my teeth for somebody to help me.”
A similar company based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has a location in Portland according to its website, and some Massachusetts companies will travel to southern Maine, but there are little options for Maine families north.
Collar spent months after the infestation learning about head lice, their life cycle and treatment options. She eventually received a head lice removal certification from the Shepherd Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida.
According to the company’s website, owner Katie Shepherd, who serves on the World Health Organization’s panel about head lice, believes the company’s methodical approach to inspecting each piece of hair helps guarantee clients leave lice and nit free.
Collar has taken what she learned from Shepherd and turned it into a salon-like list of services that include adult lice and nit removal as well as product sales. Fees are based on how long it takes to remove everything, although Collar hopes to have all clients head lice free in under two hours. All of the products used at the salon are nontoxic, something she hopes helps put parents’ minds at ease.
Gary Fish, manager of pesticide programs for the Maine Board of Pesticides Control, said the state of Maine does not have a license for companies such as Collar’s.
Spreading through families
Because of the nature of families, adult lice can spread rapidly from children to adults alike with female lice laying up to six eggs per day.
Chronic head lice is a problem in Maine, and while the Maine Division of Infectious Diseases doesn’t keep track of the number of reported cases in the state, an estimated 6 million to 12 million infestations occur in the US among children ages 3 to 11. Many schools have a “no nit” policy that requires students to remain out of the classroom until their hair is free of living lice or eggs.
According to Collar, girls are more likely to have head lice, and the Maine Division of Infectious Diseases said infestations are more common in Caucasian children than any other group.
“It’s definitely a problem in Maine. … It’s a psychological problem because of the stigma, but it can also be physical, especially because of the constant scratching and digging,” Collar said.
Because of that stigma, part of Collar’s business model is to not only treat patients but help spread the word that lice do not discriminate.
James Dill, a pest management specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said one common misconception about head lice is that personal hygiene and cleanliness play a role in infestations. However, lice do not care if the head they are feeding from is dirty or clean. Instead, they are drawn to their food, blood and body heat.
“They can’t survive off the body for more than a few hours,” Dill said. He added that while the department receives numerous calls per year about infestations, there has never been a case so severe that a school had to be shut down or “bug bombed.”
“Every year we have head lice at some of our schools, especially in the winter, but we’ve never had anything major,” he said, adding that breakouts are often worse in the winter months because students spend more time inside, close together.
Meeting a need, reducing stigma
So far, Collar has seen clients referred by school nurses, but she is taking appointments from the public.
She also wants to help low-income children who may not be able to afford treatment. MaineCare does not pay for lice treatments, which means children whose parents aren’t able to afford the sometimes pricey at-home remedies often have intense outbreaks.
Collar said she wants to find a way to offer those children treatment, however, since All About Lice is a for-profit business, she can’t accept grants.
“I really have a heart for these children, and I want to find a way to help,” Collar said. “While I can do some free treatments, we really want to look at how we can address the larger problem.”
Part of that larger problem is teaching the public that lice can happen to anyone and is nothing to be ashamed of.
“Lice don’t care if you’re clean or dirty, young or old, rich or poor,” she said.
Many people have preconceived notions of how likely it is they will contract lice, but Collar is on a mission to bust some of the more common myths.
Myth: Head lice can fly from head to head.
Truth: Lice do not fly, jump or grow wings. They can only crawl. They have to attach themselves to hair and “shimmy,” Collar said.
Myth: It’s possible to contract lice from sharing hats.
Truth: While it is possible to catch lice from a hat, it’s not likely. Lice only live six hours without a blood source, so it’s more likely to spread if you’re in close proximity to someone with it like at a sleepover. “The louse wants to stay where it’s warm. It’s not going to crawl out of hair onto a hat where it doesn’t know if or when it will find another head,” Collar said.
Myth: You have to treat the dog.
Truth: Lice do not live on animals, they are a human parasite.
Myth: You have to bag up clothes and sheets for months.
Truth: Lice die within 24 hours without food. Collar suggests vacuuming, covering up sofas and isolating clothing from the infested person for that time period. “You don’t have to burn your house down,” Collar said with a laugh.
For more information about lice or lice removal, call Collar at All About Lice at 660-5631.