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Karin Kutasewich, of Lice Squad Canada, looks for lice and lice eggs in a client's hair at her office in Toronto, Ontario on Sept. 3, 2014.The Globe and Mail

When my six-year-old complained of an itchy scalp one morning before school, I did what I suspect many other parents do: I waited until after she got home later that day to look in her hair for dreaded signs of lice. That afternoon, I peered behind her ears and had to stifle a scream.

It wasn't the dozens of caramel-coloured lice eggs that turned my stomach. Rather, it was the threat of having to figure out childcare the next day so my husband and I could go to work. In some school districts in Canada, you're not supposed to send your kid to school with lice. Kids enrolled in the Toronto District School Board also aren't allowed back to class until their hair is free of eggs and nits, the old casings from hatched eggs. If a lice-check finds the bugs at my daughter's school, you get a call and you must pick up immediately. You could be looking at up to a week out of class.

This, plus the prospect of dealing with an infestation, caused me to panic.

Compared to how other countries respond to the critters, Canadians are hysterical. Considering that the return to school is peak season for lice, and that lice have become more resistant to chemical treatments, it's time to ask whether Canadian lice policies are unreasonably harsh.

No one tracks lice statistics, but anecdotal evidence suggests the number of cases is on the rise. Karin Kutasewich operates a Toronto franchise of the Lice Squad, a company parents can hire to help rid their families of lice. She says her business spikes when kids return from camps and sleepovers where they had opportunities to share head lice. "September is my busiest time," she says – business typically goes up by about 30 per cent.

That means lots of anxious parents, worrying about how to get rid of the unwanted creatures. There are no province-wide lice policies, so the rules are set by either the boards of education or the schools themselves. In Vancouver, the lice policy is modelled after the bed-bug policy and states that while no student should be excluded from school because of lice, an affected child should be "discreetly sent to the administrator's office." In Montreal, where each school makes its own rules, one school has a particularly complicated protocol: If a teacher suspects a child has lice, the kid will be sent to the office for confirmation. If lice are found, siblings are searched before the parents are summoned and told to treat the hair. They then must return with their kids the next day to prove they are clean. If not, it's back home for them.

Compare that with Britain, where kids are permitted in school with lice. The teacher's union there even recommends against excluding children from school who have persistent lice problems. In Paris, if a child has lice, the administration posts a notice, warning parents about the case, but the affected child is allowed to stay.

In its position statement on the topic, the Canadian Paediatric Society holds that excluding kids from school because of lice "does not have sound medical rationale." And the Centre for Disease Control states on its website that children with lice should be allowed to finish their school day, start treatment and then be allowed to return. This is because, as annoying as lice can be, they are not disease-carrying and, contrary to longstanding misconceptions, you don't get lice because you're dirty.

Here, in Canada a "huge stigma" remains, says Natalie Coulter, a mother of two. "People think it's gross and people think it's dirty. You become a bit of a leper." Coulter is one of the few people approached for this article who was comfortable talking about her family's experiences. Her daughter, now in Grade 4, has had lice three times. Other parents were happy to talk privately about lice, but didn't want to go on the record.

Compare that to the matter-of-fact reaction to lice elsewhere. Cameron Stauch, a father of two whose wife's job moves the family around the globe, has dealt with lice in his children's hair both in India and Canada. He's seen first-hand the different cultural reactions to the critters. In India, where lice are commonplace and where his daughter caught some at a Montessori school, he watched as nannies practised tag-team nit-picking in the playground. There was no stigma attached to identifying who had.

Not so at his daughter's school in Ottawa. Affected families needed a certificate from what he called "the lice doctor" to get back to class.

Kutasewich also encounters different attitudes. A few years ago, she dealt with an actress from Britain who was in Canada for work. The stylist wouldn't touch her hair because she had lice. "She said, 'What's the big deal? My daughter has lice sometimes, and so do I!'" Kutasewich says. "Are we more hysterical about it? Yes. There are some parents who are so hysterical they want to burn down the house."

Getting rid of a persistent lice infestation can make you crazy. Kutasewich has had clients whose infestations have lasted for more than a year. Part of the problem is that the chemicals parents have relied on in the past don't work any more. According to a 2013 study in the Journal of Medical Entomology that analyzed the DNA of lice in Canada and the U.S., most of the insects are resistant to the insecticides. Also, something people don't talk about is that lice is often a family problem. And it's not just young children, but teens as well.

Some parents are pushing back against the hysteria. "My attitude toward lice has completely changed," says Sutapa Majumdar, whose two elementary school-aged kids have had lice a handful of times. "I don't feel it is a big deal." Coulter feels similarly. "The first time was a big deal. The second time was a bit of a big deal and the third time it wasn't at all." Their attitudes changed as they learned how to treat the lice without tearing the house apart and worrying about having to shave their kids' heads.

The way I dealt with our lice problem was by outsourcing. Within two hours of having found lice in my daughter's hair, a professional nit-picker was at our house, equipped with a light and scary-looking goggles to help her to see the critters. We all had a treatment and, for a total price of $220, my daughter also received a lice-free certificate to bring to school the next day. We nailed the problem by combing our hair every few days with a special comb over a three-week period and, to our relief, we never missed a day of school. I'd dreaded lice for years, but after we had our first bout, I realized that fear of the unknown was worse than the reality. When it comes to lice, we need to calm down and get on with the school day. As Coulter says, "they don't really do anything." Except itch.

What to do when you find lice?

Don't panic when you find lice. Unlike Natalie Coulter, who, when confronted with lice for the first time, washed everything her kids' had ever touched, including the seat covers of the car – "I kind of went crazy," she said – you don't have to spend days doing laundry. Instead, all you need to do is:

  • Wash pillowcases, pyjamas and clothing worn in the past two days in hot water and dry at high heat.
  • Soak combs and brushes in soapy water overnight.
  • Put stuffed animals, bedding, as well as clothing you can’t wash, in a bag for two weeks, says the U.S. Centres for Disease Control. Lice and their eggs can’t live longer than three days if they’re not on your scalp.
  • Many parents find combing is more effective than drugstore treatments. Buy a pricey, but effective, lice comb that catches the insects and their eggs. The CDC says that flea combs made for cats and dogs can be effective, too.
  • The Lice Squad suggests putting olive or coconut oil in the hair for at least four hours before combing.
  • And be sure to comb every few days for several weeks to catch any newly hatched bugs and their eggs.