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Everything You Didn’t Want to Know About Lice

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

This is the story of lice and men and it goes back millions of years. The first recorded mention of the irritating insects crops up about 10,000 years ago, but they were undoubtedly bothering our ancestors long before that.

Nit-picking in the 17th century.

Nit-picking in the 17th century.

The Origin of the Louse

Cooties have been our close companions since before our ancestors walked upright on two legs and started using their knuckles to establish who the alpha male was.

There are three types of lice whose job it is to annoy humans―head lice, pubic lice, and body lice. Each has evolved to specialize in sucking blood from different areas of the body.

(Isn’t this delightful?)

The little rascals can’t fly so they have to be transferred by close contact with another person or sharing things such as hair brushes or clothes.

There is no connection between lice infestation and social standing, race, or any of the other artificial constructs that have been invented to divide us. The lice don’t care who you or where you live, they just want a daily blood meal; without it they die.

Lice come with a high yuck factor.

Lice come with a high yuck factor.

Treatments for Lice Infestations

When your little cherub comes home from school with the “lice letter” don’t panic. There are effective treatments available today that were not around in years past.

About 3,500 years ago the Egyptians recommended date meal. The advice was to swill it around in your mouth with water and then spit it out on your body.

Compounds of arsenic and mercury were favoured in China.

The Aztec Emperor Montezuma paid servants to pick lice off the royal body and squish them. Members of the common herd had to rely on volunteers for this service.

According to a posting at Stanford University, “the Aztecs used to bring bags of lice in place of gold to pay their respects to Montezuma.” (However, the Spanish conquistadors who reported this may have mistaken lice for cochineal bugs, which did have some value).

Closer to our times, drinking a concoction of vinegar and cheese whey was put forward as a method for dealing with the parasites.

For to kill lyce
Take the whaye that remayneth of cheese making
and put to it a little vinaigre, and Drinke of it
certayne Dayes : and all the lyce will Dye, and ther
will breede no more a boute yow.

If that didn’t work―and it didn’t―the powdered antlers of red deer could be tried. It was equally ineffective. Other useless therapies included ginger, cloves, and sneezing powder.

No matter what was used the insects survived. A report in 1870 stated that 90 percent of England’s schoolchildren had head lice.

A French advertisement for a wonder cure claiming combing (left) is ineffective while La Veldalice does the job immediately.

A French advertisement for a wonder cure claiming combing (left) is ineffective while La Veldalice does the job immediately.

The invention of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT, dealt a massive blow to lice, until we realized the chemical had some very nasty side effects.

The universal adoption of better personal hygiene cut down on infestations, but we are still left with the use of a fine-toothed comb to get rid of the critters, their offspring, and their eggs. There are proprietary applications available but their efficacy has not been established.

Delousing Procedure: Time and Place Unknown (No Sound)

Lice and Disease

The British mathematician Augustus De Morgan gave us the following rhyme:

“Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em,

And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.”

His ditty could equally apply to body lice, because lots of microbes hitchhike on them as they go about their work of finding a blood meal on a human host. Body lice spend most of their time tucked up in clothing and only emerge when it’s lunch time.

Emily Willingham, (Scientific American) tells us that “One of the best-known of these microbial passengers is the bacterium responsible for typhus.” Those who contracted typhus would find death to be a very welcome visitor.

Thankfully, louse-caused typhus is uncommon today.

During World War One, soldiers were plagued by body lice, which sometimes caused a condition called trench fever. This involved intense shooting pains and a high fever; it didn’t kill but took many soldiers out of combat while they recovered. No doubt for some it was a welcome ailment.

Head lice are not the direct cause of any malady. Of course, the scratching to diminish the itch might break the surface of the skin and cause a skin infection or create an entry point for bacteria.

Lastly, we come to the ever-popular pubic lice, known colloquially as “crabs.” They are transmitted through sexual contact and the only known side-effect is intense embarrassment.

Fine-tooth wet combing with conditioner is the most effective way of getting rid of lice.

Fine-tooth wet combing with conditioner is the most effective way of getting rid of lice.

Bonus Factoids

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control “an estimated six million to 12 million [head lice] infestations occur each year in the United States among children three to 11 years of age.” They are much less likely to occur among African-Americans than in other races.
  • During World War One, soldiers had a way of killing lice in their clothes. George Coppard was a private in the Royal West Surrey Regiment. He recalled that “A lighted candle applied where they were thickest made them pop like Chinese crackers. After a session of this, my face would be covered with small blood spots from extra big fellows which had popped too vigorously.”
  • During the 17th and 18th centuries bathing was unpopular. It was believed that if warm water was applied to the skin, the pores would spring wide open and invite disease in. As a result almost everybody had head lice. For the upper classes the remedy was to shave the head and put on an elaborate wig. Of course, the vermin took up occupancy in the wigs. The solution was to send the wig off to the wig maker to be boiled; the bewigged gentry needed several hairpieces that could be used in rotation because the bugs always repopulated the cleansed wig.
Over-sized wigs, otherwise known as lice residences, are satirized.

Over-sized wigs, otherwise known as lice residences, are satirized.

Sources

  • “Lice Evolution Tracks the Invention of Clothes.” Rachel Nuwer, Smithsonian Magazine, November 14, 2012.
  • “Tapeworms, Lice, and Prions: A Compendium of Unpleasant Infections.” David Grove, Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • “Pediculosis.” Stanford University, 2002.
  • “Early Modern Head Lice Remedies; or, Dealing with Pediculosis, Renaissance-Style.” Heather Wolf, Folger Shakespeare Library, May 15, 2018.
  • “Of Lice and Men: An Itchy History, Emily Willingham, Scientific American, February 14, 2011.
  • “Lice.” John Simkin, Spartacus Educational, January 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Mr Happy on March 20, 2021:

Lice, huh? Haha!! You never cease to amaze me with your topics of writing. Cheers for that!

You never mentioned gasoline for removal. Haha!! No, I do not recommend it. It burns but it worked and no horror stories on my part, as I see written online. Mind You, I grew-up in a dictatorship. We didn't have options. So, I do wish the gasoline for curing head-lice is simply going to remain as a thing of the past.

Alrighty, have a joyful weekend!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 20, 2021:

Thirty years ago, our youngest child came home from school just as I was heading out on a business trip. As Christopher passed me in the doorway I saw them and had to leave my wife to deal with the infestation. The lice were gone by the time I got home.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 20, 2021:

Back in the days of long ago when I was a child in school, I do not remember anyone having head lice. I guess we were lucky.

It does not sound like it would be fun dealing with those little critters.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on March 19, 2021:

I remember them fine tooth combs when I was at school!

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