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Tampa parents turn to lice removal experts to combat pests

On house calls, a LiceDoctors technician brings hair clips, olive oil, a magnifying glass, a nit comb, regular combs, baby wipes, a portable light — and experience.
Published Feb. 18, 2016

TAMPA

Four kids bunch up for a selfie. Thick hair blends together. Say, "Cheese."

Selfie. Selfie. Selfie.

You know who else loves selfies?

Lice.

One kid in the selfie has lice? Now the other three in the photo might have lice as well.

The lice fall on the kids' backpacks. Backpacks are piled up in the classroom. Lice fall into other backpacks. Backpacks are swung up to shoulders. Hair falls on top of the backpack.

And so on.

Lice. Lice. Lice.

Some families are literally in tears fighting the little buggers.

An official letter from the Hillsborough County Schools District has been sent home from some schools.

We have been instructed to notify parents when head lice have been identified in school. The following information and directions have been compiled concerning head lice. We are sharing this with you at this time because HEAD LICE HAVE BEEN FOUND AT THIS SCHOOL. Head lice (Pediculosis) are characterized by itchy scalp …"

The letter, which does in fact include periodic bold CAPITAL letters, says that kids who are found with lice, "will not be permitted in school until their heads are free of both lice and nits (eggs)."

The letter offers a lengthy list of treatment suggestions, including: seeing a doctor, buying over-the-counter or prescription treatments, washing and shampooing bodies and hair, dry-cleaning coats, washing sheets, vacuuming mattresses, sealing stuffed animals in large plastic bags.

And so on.

Hillsborough school district spokesperson Tanya Arja cautions that despite the frustration some families may be feeling in their battle against lice, there is no outbreak of lice throughout Hillsborough County schools. Arja said lice levels appear normal and less than 1 percent of lice is transmitted at schools.

"We simply want to bring awareness when it is needed," Arja said. "We are not trying to alarm anyone. It's precautionary."

For those infested, however, it's getting tougher and tougher to kill the bugs and debates are hot on how to kill the bugs, which scientists say have adapted and become resistant to over-the-counter shampoos and pesticides.

Desperate families have turned to lice-removal businesses, such as the LiceDoctors, who come to a client's home, apply oils to the hair — "to suffocate" the lice — thoroughly comb through the hair and remove all bugs and nits.

LiceDoctors, a national franchise in 40 states that offers a 30-day lice-free guarantee, charges $125 for the first hour and $110 for each additional hour plus travel. LiceDoctors does not charge, "per head."

South Tampa resident Shannon Gittleman, who lived on a street that suffered a lice outbreak in almost every house within 250 yards, said she was at her wits end to not only kill the bugs, "but to see them."

"My daughter has light brown hair, and as much as I tried I couldn't see (the nits and bugs)," Gittleman said. "I called (Lice­Doctors) and they came to our house, applied the oil, combed through our hair, and they were done with my daughter and me within a couple of hours."

Gittleman followed the "post-treatment" instructions, which involved sticking stuffed animals in bags and laundering and so forth, and she said, "We had no more lice after that. I was thrilled."

One South Tampa parent, Michelle Cherry, became so frustrated with a five-month battle of "using every over-the-counter lice shampoo and prescribed treatment and service, and spending more than $2,000" that she drove her daughter to Jacksonville for a new hot-air "dehydration" treatment.

"And finally we got relief," Cherry said. "When I was driving home from Jacksonville I said, 'Why doesn't anybody open one of these in Tampa? This is needed.' This is certainly not something I wanted to be in. I used to teach elementary school (in New York). So I'm pretty good with kids. So I said, 'Why not open my own (lice removal) business.' "

She did.

Cherry started her business, Lice Away Today, in Ybor City more than a year ago and moved a few months ago to a storefront at 4308 W El Prado Blvd. in South Tampa

Business is good.

January, in fact, featured a store-record 98 customers, all of whom had lice and/or nits (eggs).

Cherry says she killed and removed all the little buggers from all those heads of hair.

She does it with an FDA-cleared medical device called AirAlle' (pronounced air-a-lay), which kills lice and eggs through dehydration. The device, which looks like a vacuum but performs more like an air dryer, uses a combination of temperature control, airflow, time (30 minutes) and technique (there is a specific hand-holding method).

After the AirAlle' treatment, Cherry, or one of her three part-time employees, does a post-treatment comb-out and rinse, which takes about an hour. Once completed, a quick list of maintenance and preventive tips are provided.

Treatments vary from $95 to $160 depending on the package.

Cherry guarantees the treatment for 30 days.

"My hope is that I never have repeat customers," Cherry said. "I never want to see a customer in my store after that first time. I'll be happy to see them in the park or at a restaurant or something like that. But only one time in my store."

LiceDoctors' technician Kim DeAndrea said she never saw herself working such a job, but she finds it very rewarding.

"I have been to homes where mothers greet me at the door literally in tears," DeAndrea said. "Sometimes they are ashamed and they think they are bad mothers. But the truth is, lice does not discriminate. Anybody can get lice. Anybody! And these little bugs can drive you downright crazy.

"When I come in and solve their problem they are so happy. I feel like I'm really helping somebody and that feels great."

Contact Scott Purks at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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