Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2014.
When we were young, cooties were the height of disgust and fear. Never seen but horrifically imagined, they were the playground equivalent to serial killers. When playing tag, “cooties” added a dimension of engagement that was hard to duplicate. You heard the word and you ran, the only sound being that of your heart pounding in your ears.
Becoming a grownup marks an important transition in our relationship with cooties, namely an inability to flee. When cooties arrive in the house – and we now know it’s not just one thing, but lots of things, and most of them are real – it’s our responsibility to stay close and to deal with them in the knowledge that, when it comes to our kids, we’re the only ones who will.
I once told my daughter when combing her hair for nits that this is the ultimate expression of my love. Hugs are easy. Nits are gross.
And there is another transition that comes with parenting, and that’s the understanding that cooties in one form or another are normal, common and, despite any visceral reaction we may have at first glance, running away requires a lot more energy than simply dealing with them.
What’s eating you?
PEDICULUS HUMANUS CAPITIS (head lice)
“It’s got this negative ick factor,” says Dawn Mucci, “and people do tend to panic.” Dawn is the owner and founder of Lice Squad, which is a public health equivalent of Ghostbusters. In that role she spends her day fi nding and eradicating lice from our children’s heads, and educating people about how to deal with the wee bugs. “You can probably get rid of lice within the day as long as you have a good comb,” she says in order to underscore the idea industrial grade pesticides don’t have to be, nor should be, our fi rst-line defense. In fact, Dawn has made it her mission to demonstrate that we don’t need pesticides at all, and educates parents to be proactive and preventive rather than reactive and demented. “What we really try to do is make fun of head lice. We’re all going to get it at some time or another, so get the education, get it gone, and let’s not make such a big panic about it.”
> Ok, now what? Lice aren’t dangerous and they don’t spread disease, so the only reason you’ll want to get on top of it is because most schools have a no-nit policy. Excessive itching can also lead to a possible skin infection, so arm yourself with a good nit comb, a bottle of olive oil or some other kind of lubricant, and start combing.
Fun fact: Head lice have evolved specifically to live on the heads of people, and there is no other environment in the world where they can survive, something that has been the case for the past three million years. Where we go, they go. Kind of makes you feel wanted, doesn’t it?
PEDICULUS HUMANUS HUMANUS (body lice)
Yup, crabs. The lice so nice they named’em twice. They can remain dormant in a summer camp mattress. Believe me. They are a slightly different insect than head lice, though equally well adapted. If you’re not an entymologist, this is the distinguishing factor: they lay their eggs on fabric, not hair or skin. Good to know …
> Ok, now what? The less said, the better. Wash kid, bedding, towels, clothes in soap designed for the purpose.
SARCOPTES SCABIEI (scabies)
In dogs, cats, wild boars and apes it’s called mange. In people, it’s scabies. Whatever you call it, it’s a colony of invisible mites: the females burrow into the skin to lay eggs, which then become nymphs, and then emerge onto the surface of the skin as adults. You get the mites through direct skin-to-skin contact, and the result is an intense itch, redness, and in some, a strong allergic reaction.
> Ok, now what? Scabies is the third most common skin disorder in children next to athletes’ foot and impetigo, though it often goes unrecognized. Go to the doctor, fi ll the prescription and use it on everyone in the house, including the dog.
Fun fact: With its discovery in 1687, scabies became the first human disease with a known cause. And we still haven’t gotten rid of it.
INFANTILE SEBORRHOEIC DERMATITIS (cradle cap)
Outside of the winter months, if a baby is wearing a hat you can be pretty sure that it’s hiding something. Namely, a bacterial colony. Whatever cutesy-poo name you choose to call it – milk crust, honeycomb disease, cradle cap – it appears as thick, crusty, cracked brown scales, and it’s as disgusting as it is ubiquitous. Nearly half of all newborns get at least a mild form.
> Ok, now what? For most kids, gentle washing with a mild soap over the course of a number of days will take care of it. No biggie at all.
What is that?
TINEA PEDIS (athlete’s foot)
Were you to Google “athlete’s foot” (please don’t actually do this, or if you do, don’t say that I didn’t warn you) and click on the images tab, you’d be surprised. It’s hideous. And that’s what I saw one day when my daughter took off her socks. Zombie feet. (Cue the music from the shower scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho.) It’s a fungus thriving on the moist, supple flesh of your child.
> Ok, now what? Spray, spray, and spray again, and a couple times more. You’re good. The only thing that will remain is the memory, which you’ll be stuck with for the rest of your life.
Pinkeye can be transmitted – as you most likely already know – at a furious rate. There was an outbreak in Korea in 2007 that went from a few cases to 20,000 in the space of a week. They closed schools because of it.
> Ok, now what? Keep your child home from school in order to avoid communicating pinkeye to others, and apply antibiotic eye drops. Discourage kids from touching or rubbing their eyes as well.
IMPETIGO CONTAGIOSA (impetigo)
Because impetigo can run through a classroom quicker than a rumour, it is known in some circles as school sores. It’s a bacterial skin infection more common in children because they bump into each other a lot. It’s also gross: weeping, open sores, blisters and scabs. It’s a great look for Halloween, but otherwise, not so good.
> Ok, now what? See the doctor. The treatment is quick and painless, but the child will need antibiotics, either ointment or tablets, that aren’t available over the counter. Otherwise, the best prevention is to keep your child’s nails clipped and clean and tell him, whatever it is, don’t scratch it.
Quick Tip: With the head back, place a drop in the inner corner of your child’s eye and then have your kiddo blink several times. It’s easier than applying to an open eye, as kids get squeamish when they see it coming. Wouldn’t you?
It’s not what you think…
For some reason, wrestlers get it statistically more than any other group. It also isn’t a worm but a fungus growing on the skin. Round, raised and red, ringworm is also one of the reasons why kids should wear shoes – people who go barefoot are more at risk.
> Ok, now what? Get some antifungal cream. You may need a prescription for something stronger if over-the-counter medication doesn’t work.
VERRUCA PLANTARIS (plantar warts)
We tend to overreact to so many things, though the gap between the risk and revulsion when it comes to warts is particularly vast. I know. I’ve had plantar warts, and if anyone sees them, it’s bad. We think they’re hard to get rid of, which actually isn’t the case. Plantar warts are self-limiting, which means that in most cases they will go away on their own in time.
> Ok, now what? There are lots of options from freezing, to burning with a mild acid, to laser treatment. But duct tape actually does work. Clean the area, remove the callous and dead skin with a pumice stone, and cover the area with a piece of duct tape. Repeat every few days and, after a couple weeks, you’ll be telling everybody how much you love duct tape.
HERPES SIMPLEX (cold sores)
About 90 percent of the adult population tests positive for the virus that causes cold sores, though the majority will never exhibit symptoms. For those who do, however, it’s no fun at all, precisely because cold sores appear on the face, right out there in plain view. They can be caused by contact (such as kissing). The virus is incurable, so even when any lesions have resolved, it remains dormant within the body and will re-emerge again after a period of months or years, most typically at the time of school photos and the prom.
> Ok, now what? Leave it alone: tell your child not to pick it or touch it. Many over-the-counter remedies will reduce the symptoms, though it’s also worth raising the issue with your doctor, as there are prescription treatments that will help reduce its visibility.
Father of three Glen Herbert has at tended to pinkeye, lice, impetigo, athlete’s foot, broken bones, broken hearts and throw-up.