Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Getting Rid Of Head Lice

It's up to you.  Either you can scroll to the end and find out how to get rid of 'em or you can put up with my wittering.  I would prefer you to do the former.

Consider the following depressingly useful instrument:

Available from your local chemist of dubious ethical repute, this is of course a nit comb.  Since we are in the home ed community, we are familiar with the insects which make this device helpful:

There are also these:

Now we were autonomous home edders, so the first thing to say is that everything that comes into our experience should at least be considered as an educational resource, and these are no exceptions.  Moreover, they can be used in terms of what I've always thought of as the "vertical curriculum".  A one-dimensional understanding of these would merely involve their biological status, but there's a lot more to them than that.  For instance, there's the following poem:

"Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on."

This is Augustus de Morgan's version of part of the poem by Jonathan Swift:

 "So nat'ralists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller fleas to bite 'em.
And so proceeds Ad infinitum."

I have written about Augustus de Morgan on the althist wiki here but the real Augustus de Morgan you can read about here.  Basically, if you wanted history to continue in a straight line instead of veer off in a weird direction in the late 1970s, the first thing you'd have to do would be to make sure nobody discovered that he was copying pictures out of Euclid's Elements in the 1830s.  That's a way into history from fleas.  It's also a way into mathematics (recursion and infinitesimals, which leads to calculus), philosophy, logic and the Arts & Crafts Movement, and of course computer science.

It also has a grain of truth in it.  Fleas do indeed have their own parasites in the form of mites, those mites will have bacterial pathogens and those bacteria may have viruses.  Going the other way, presumably vampire bats have fleas, so the question is, is there anything a vampire bat feeds on which is parasitic on a larger species?  All of that is grist to the home ed mill.

Looking at the above two pictures, it's notable that the lower one contains a larval form and the upper doesn't.  This is significant because each represents an example of the two big divisions of types of insect, the holometabola and hemimetabola respectively.  The holometabola have maggot or caterpillar larvae which pupate and then hatch out as imagos or adults, and include insects such as flies, butterflies and ants.  The hemimetabola, on the other hand, simply start their lives as smaller versions of the adults, perhaps different in various ways such as lacking wings or living underwater, and just mature without pupating. They include grasshoppers, mayflies and dragonflies, and of course headlice.  Another thing you can get out of having headlice or fleas as a home edder.

Another aspect is that their lifestyles and adaptations are linked to what types of insect they are.  Flea pupae hang around waiting for vibration and then hatch out.  They live longer than lice for that reason partly, and they can also live away from their hosts.  Consequently they have adapted to jumping a long way.  Headlice, on the other hand, spread by contact and can't survive away from the body, and they stick their eggs, nits, onto the hairs of the host.  Needless to say they mature very quickly, in about four days, and reproduce very quickly.

Both fleas and headlice are thin in one direction than the other, making them resistant to being bitten.  However, whereas fleas are compressed laterally, lice are compressed dorsoventrally.  This is not particularly significant so far as I can tell but illustrates both the choice and lack of choice available in evolution.

You can take these animals and stick them under a microscope of course.  We've done this with lice and you can clearly see your blood moving through their digestive systems.

Lice are also useful for tracking the movements of prehistoric human beings because of their mutations and genetic drift.  Another possible avenue of exploration is historical and sociological.  There's the Black Death, the history of plague, history of medicine and attitudes to cleanliness.  For instance, lice were once called something like "the pearls of poverty".  There are also two races of louse, the head louse and the body louse.  Moreover, the words "louse" and "flea" are very ancient and are used to track the evolution of languages as well as humans because they've always been with us.  If the Nostratic hypothesis is to be believed (a language spoken during the last Ice Age which is ancestral to probably most of the languages spoken in the Old World today), their word for "flea" was something like "pürčVGV" (not all the sounds can be determined accurately, hence the capital letters) and the word for "louse" was "t'ajV".  Here we're talking about a language which hasn't been spoken for something like fifteen thousand years, although many people are sceptical about it ever having existed or any words being recoverable from it if it did exist.

Those are some of the jumping off points from fleas in home ed terms then.  Clearly some of those would be pursued, or not pursued by the younger infested members of your household rather than the older ones, but it probably helps to be aware of these possibilities among many others.

How to get rid of them

You may or may not have been able to stand my constant waffle, so here's my advice regarding headlice.  I just want to point out that I strive to be vegan, and in this case this probably means not allowing myself to become a potential habitat for them in the first place, but it can of course be almost impossible.  It's also very difficult to deal with them in dreadlocks, so you have to lose those too, unfortunately, which can be a bit of a disaster.  Been there.  The option of shaving my head completely was within one shampooing at one point in the early 'noughties, but it never happened, thank goodness.  They also literally make you feel lousy because of the immune response to the salivary antigens in the blood, and of course like all living things, headlice excrete - I won't spell that out.

To get rid of headlice, put 2% by volume of tea tree oil in shampoo base and mix thoroughly.  When I make shampoos, I usually put half the base in first, then cover it in a layer of oils, then cover that in the rest of the base before stirring thoroughly with a sturdy plastic fork and pouring through a funnel into a bottle.  I usually start washing my hair with the stuff adhering to the side of the container I mixed it in so it won't go to waste.

You then wash your hair thoroughly at a maximum of three day intervals until they're gone, preferably combing it through each time.  At that point, you will immediately be reinfested by an oblivious carrier, but you know, you've got to try haven't you?

Another option is to mix in tincture of Delphinium officinale or larkspur:

Larkspur is, like Cimicifuga racemosa, which I mentioned previously, in the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family, all of which are quite poisonous, and in this case very much so.  Interestingly, Cimicifuga means "dispeller of bedbugs", so it's not just larkspur which might be useful in this respect.  Even so, I don't think it would be a good idea to use it to get rid of headlice for the very simple reason that if you have headlice, you will have lots of little holes in your scalp with an anticoagulant in them, to which you would then be applying something highly toxic to your body as well as the headlice's, so I don't do it.

Incidentally, the simple recipe of adding tea tree to shampoo base is an adaptation of a much longer recipe with loads more essential oils in it which I've forgotten, but in my experience tea tree works fine.  Sadly, tea tree is not local to Britain, and I usually try to avoid it for that reason (air miles and the like), but exasperation and desperation led me to take rather drastic steps.

So when it comes down to it, yes, headlice and to a lesser extent fleas are nasty but at least if your children are into disgusting stuff, and many are, they're also quite a motivator for learning and also a resource for that reason, and that resource needn't be just about biology.  You can hang all sorts of things on them, and if you're a home educating family it won't be long before you are visited by the good fortune of an infestation.  Lucky you.