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One louse, ick. Two lice, call for help!

NYT:  In yet another example of outsourcing, upscale lice consultants are handling a job that anxious, busy parents hesitate to take on themselves. Alarmed by notes sent home from school nurses or frantic calls from baby sitters, parents are giving "lice whisperers" brisk business.
Image: Combing out lice
Sylvia Trejo combs lice from a client’s hair at Hair Fairies in Los Angeles. Stephanie Diani for The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

IS any creature less sexy than a louse?

Raise the subject of , and otherwise sensible, composed parents can be reduced to panic. The fact that no treatment is 100 percent effective — and that eggs may be hatching right now in your daughter’s ponytail — only intensifies the anxiety. All because of a rather harmless scavenger no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence.

And so it was that on an azure morning in Los Angeles, the “whisperer” of Bel Air, 40-year-old Amy Goldreyer, donned a white bandana outside a sprawling colonial-style home. A 3-year-old boy dressed as Buzz Lightyear opened the door, and Ms. Goldreyer immediately went to work, laying combs and conditioners on a table in preparation for delousing the family’s three children.

“We thought we would be the last people on the block to get lice,” the mother said, clearly mortified, which probably explained why she insisted on anonymity.

Ms. Goldreyer was already pulling a fine-toothed metal lice comb through Buzz’s hair and finding nits, the tiny egg casings left by louse babies. The family had summoned , Ms. Goldreyer’s company, after their nanny discovered live bugs in the oldest daughter’s hair.

“I certainly wasn’t going to pick them out myself,” the mother said, explaining that she felt too repulsed to be fully functional. The fee for rendering her children’s scalps lice-free? Roughly $300, not including recommended follow-up visits and products like combs and organic lice shampoos.

In yet another example of outsourcing, upscale lice consultants are handling a job that anxious, busy parents hesitate to take on themselves. Alarmed by notes sent home from school nurses or frantic calls from baby sitters, parents are giving specialists like Ms. Goldreyer brisk business.

Her services are fairly reasonable as fancy lice treatments go. A visit to , a hair salon dedicated exclusively to lice removal, with locations in Manhattan, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities, costs an average of $300 a head. A middle-of-the-night consultation with a technician from the on the Upper East Side can run $500 or more.

Indeed, even in recessionary times, the lice business appears to be thriving. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Florida have . Dallas has the and Boston the (The puns abound.)

“I get 5 to 15 calls a day from parents who basically tell me: ‘I’ll pay anything. Just get this over with,’ ” said Ms. Goldreyer, a former New Yorker and once a production assistant for . Since 2006, she has been treating lice full time. She got the idea after picking nits at her child’s during a lice outbreak a few years earlier.

“What can I say?” she said. “I’ve always liked to pick at things. It’s my calling.”

The stories from the lice specialists are both gross and engrossing. A heavy infestation often requires hours of meticulous combing, tweezing and squinting. To be safe, follow-up sessions are usually recommended. Ms. Goldreyer sometimes uses a LouseBuster, a machine that employs heat.

The job can have its rewards. There was the rock star so grateful for the work that Hair Fairies did on his children’s hair (and his own dreadlocks) that he sponsored the baseball team of the technician’s son.

Image: LouseBuster
Stephanie Diani for NYT

“Another client sent a private jet for one of our people,” said Maria E. Botham, who founded Hair Fairies in 1999 after running a children’s swimming school in Southern California. The company’s Midtown Manhattan salon opened in 2004, and Ms. Botham plans to open others in Seattle, Minneapolis and Europe. Still, when she discusses her job in mixed company, people inevitably start scratching.

“I always have to take a deep breath when people ask what I do,” Ms. Botham said. “It’s embarrassing even though it’s fun at the same time.”

Elizabeth Solovay, an owner of the Lice Treatment Center, which operates in 18 states, is a former Manhattan real estate broker with a Yale education and five children. She said that she gets as many as 50 service inquiries a day in her New York office alone. One cry for help arrived before Thanksgiving last year when a cheerleading squad discovered lice during a cheer competition in Washington.

“They begged us to show up immediately in unmarked vans and discreet clothing,” Ms. Solovay said. “Wouldn’t you know it? A few hours later, we got hush-hush calls from another squad at the same competition, and then another, and another.”

Head lice are tenacious like that. Over the years, they have adapted to resist many pesticide treatments, and they are just plain difficult to detect. Bites can cause secondary skin infections, and visible infestations are undeniably disgusting. But the runaway terror that keeps professional lice fighters fully booked does raise eyebrows among medical experts in the field.

“Misinformation abounds in the lice world,” said Richard J. Pollack, an entomologist with the Harvard School of Public Health, who said he worries about what practitioners who lack medical training may tell clients. He said he receives monthly reports of children injured by , gasoline and other substances used without reason to treat lice.

Lice do not fly or jump, they are not a sign of dirtiness and they generally do not lie in wait on airplane headrests or inside lockers, hats or T-ball helmets, he said. Washing every sheet, rug and curtain in the house is also unnecessary.

“The only way to get head lice is by direct head-to-head contact,” Dr. Pollack said. “The silver lining is a kid with lice is a kid with very close friends.”

That’s what school administrators worry about. Some districts require children with nits or active lice to stay home, a practice that Dr. Pollack and others have fought to overturn.

Dr. Barbara Frankowski, a professor at the and an author of the clinical report on head lice for the , said: “I can guarantee you there are very few health consequences associated with head lice beyond the ick factor. If anything, having head lice is really just a hassle.”

But it also carries a social stigma. When Christiane Kafka, a freelance editor in Manhattan, spotted a nit on her 4-year-old daughter’s scalp in March, she was traumatized enough to race out to the drugstore at 4 a.m.

Stephanie Diani for NYT

“The whole idea of head lice is so awful and humiliating,” she said. But after trying an over-the-counter treatment, she decided to call Hair Fairies. “I felt like I didn’t have the expertise or the eye to do it myself,” she said. With follow-up visits, Hair Fairies cost Ms. Kafka around $500. “I was pretty desperate, but what else could I do?” she said.

A few brave parents do what parents have done for millennia: they pick the pests out themselves.

When Doug Okun, a San Francisco financial services consultant, received a call last winter from a school nurse, he considered calling in a louse specialist. Mr. Okun has 6-year-old twin girls, and wanted both of them to be treated, though only one had lice. That would have meant paying about $1,000. Instead, he used store-bought remedies and committed to combing, picking and squinting for 10 days.

“It was gross, but I used the time to really bond with my daughters,” he said. “And it was a lot cheaper than hiring a lice buster.”

This article, first appeared in The New York Times.