Ding Dong, You Have Lice

Just in time in for Halloween, when kids share their wigs and costumes with reckless abandon, the louse has been added to a list of ‘superbugs.’ How spooked should parents be?

10.31.13 12:32 PM ET

This Halloween there may be something more frightening out there than ghouls, haunted houses, or your daughter dressed up as Miley Cyrus. Lice.   

Yes, the louse, that itchy creepy crawling little bug that has tormented school children and their parents and their teachers and their friends' parents and their teachers and et cetera for generations. For the last decade or two, these annoying invaders have become resistant to the various antimicrobials, lotions and grandma’s tricks for removal. One report this month lists them among the “superbugs.”  

To make matters even worse, some are now suggesting that lice might be finding their way into last year’s Halloween costumes and be ready for tonight’s festivities to infect the next poor soul. The premise is that Cousin Lenny's super-fun Batman outfit from last year was in fact lousy (ie, lice-riddled); now that you’re ready to put the same adorable Bat-outfit on Junior, you might have goofed. You might not have been so cheap this year and accepted a hand-me-down (I mean ALL they want is the candy anyhow). According to some, you might be about to unleash a house-wide calamity, something worse even that having your tree TP’ed.   

Almost certainly not. Thankfully, the notion of a louse egg lasting a year in some closet somewhere then hatching and causing mischief is total hogwash and should be viewed as just so much Halloween spook-out (and clever niche marketing). There is however a not-paranoid or market-driven reason to fret, albeit a VERY small one. That’s when kids try on each other’s wigs and other costumes.  

But first a word on human lice, a noble symbiote who has been working the primate circuit for millions of years. There are three different types that affect humans, and important differences exist among them, though all need human blood and human warmth for survival. The one that drives most families over the edge is head lice. The bug itself passes all-too-easily from kindergartener to kindergartener because of the wrestling, frolicking, and close-in whispering and scheming that youngsters engage in. Or sharing their Thor wig after wearing it for an hour with their unsuspecting best friend. The good news about head lice is that they carry no human diseases—they just create a major annoyance. And yes, they are becoming ever more drug-resistant—but in no way have reached super-bug status. 

Next in line is the body louse—the only dangerous member of the troika.  They too require human blood and warmth to survive but, oddly, the females lay their eggs preferentially in places like the creases of clothing. They are the ones that perhaps could move from person to person if, for example, you wore your Miley Cyrus to last weekend’s party and lent it to your friend for tonight’s trick or treat. Maybe.  

Body lice though are important from a public health perspective. They are a different species than those that affect the head or pubic area and can carry lethal infection – most famously epidemic typhus. Typhus (completely distinct from typhoid fever) is an often lethal infection that causes rapid death, affecting blood vessels and leading to failure of multiple organ systems.   

The last of the three human lice is certainly unknown to any readers of The Daily Beast but may be familiar to their friends who read other sites. Pubic lice carry no human disease other than humiliation. The species has found its own eco-niche—the coarse oilier hairs of groin, armpit, and eyebrows. Spread by intimate contact, typically intercourse, they cause itch, they end relationships, and they too are finding their way to drug resistance.  

So back to the issue at hand—is there a reason not to wear hand-me-down costumes or to tell the kids not to share? As mentioned, no louse egg can survive a year in the closet, so last year’s costumes from Cousin Lenny are a-OK.  And clothes-swapping of Halloween gear is no different than lending someone your sweater or scarf. There is a statistical possibility that a nit or two might be glued on the surface somewhere and will find its way into your hair and cause you to itch and ruin your life. But so too might the elevator cable snap and send you into a freefall. It’s not a large enough risk to make any sane person anxious. 

Halloween is the holiday of officially fake fear when people demonstrably are wearing costumes and over-acting their witchiness and ghostliness, all for the fun of conveying a festive atmosphere to the kiddies – before the sugar rush of too many Bite-Sized Milky Ways sends everyone into meltdown mode and families end up barking at each other, children can’t sleep, and everyone has a miserable tomorrow. And so it is perhaps logical that costume-based pediculophobia (fear of lice) should now be introduced into the entire faux-fear theme: exaggerated fear about something actually scary that thankfully is never our way coming.