"Excuse me, but do you know what this is?"
It's that time of year again when supermarket pharmacists are inundated with worried, embarrassed parents asking this and similar questions, in the hopes of finding a cure for their children's itching scalps.
"It used to be a problem at the beginning of the school year," said Larry Press, a pharmacist at Country Counter/Stop 'n' Shop in Cleveland, "but lately it's a recurring situation."
David Godines, a pharmacist at HEB Food Stores in Austin, Texas, said he sees about 1,000 head lice cases a year in the supermarket pharmacy.
"At the beginning of the school year you see an increase and then it tapers off, but then it gets worse again in the winter when kids put on their caps. It keeps recycling around," Godines said.
"You see it all over the country no matter what state you're in," said Roger Taylor, a pharmacist at Fry's Food & Drug Stores in Phoenix. "It affects mostly kindergarten or young elementary school kids," he said.
Press said the problem tends to be worse in inner cities or inner-ring suburbs.
"When kids are around other kids they pass it back and forth to each other. If one kid comes to school with lice, chances are they will pass it on to other kids," Taylor added.
By all accounts, the head-lice problem is getting worse. According to the National Pediculosis Association (NPA), a nonprofit health-education agency established to protect children from potentially harmful pesticidal treatments for head lice, an estimated $200 million is spent each year on over-the-counter lice sprays, shampoos, creams, lotions and prescription treatments.
And dollar sales are up this year. Through June 16, dollar sales of lice treatments were up at all three distribution channels: supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers.
At supermarkets, dollar sales totaled $15.3 million for lice treatments through June 16, up 20% over the same period a year ago. Dollar sales for lice treatments were $78 million at drug stores through June 16, up 11% over the same period. And sales totaled $30 million at mass merchandisers, up 48%. (Figures were supplied by Chicago-based Information Resources.)
Lice are tiny insects that can be spread via shared combs, brushes, hats or direct head-to-head contact. Lice hatch from eggs called nits. Nits hatch in about one week and mature about 9 to 12 days after hatching.
In warm-weather states, like Florida, the problem is incessant, said Susan Ostroski, a pharmacist at Publix Pharmacy in Publix Supermarkets, Tampa, Fla. "It's warm -- the temperature is conducive to the hatching of eggs. Children are outside, playing closely together. I had one nurse in Florida who said it was so bad the lice were jumping across the room."
Not literally. Lice cannot fly or jump from one person to another; they can only crawl.
Head lice in children is usually first detected by school nurses, said Howard Silverman, a pharmacist with Winn-Dixie Marketplace in Cape Coral, Fla. "Sometimes children get lice at summer camp. When the children go back to school, the school nurse checks them out and send notes to the parent to have the problem corrected."
"The parents are usually shocked when they find out," said Ostroski. "Some of them are very frantic. They take action very quickly."
Enter the pharmacists. Parents usher their forlorn children to the pharmacy counter and point at their scalps. First questions often asked are: "What's this? How did my child get this?"
Parents have also been known to bring in shafts of hair with the egg attached to it or little glass jars that contain the bugs.
According to pharmacists, parents of affected children often feel defensive. "There's still somewhat of a stigma attached to [having head lice]," observed Diana Ross, a pharmacist at Albertson's in Winter Park, Fla.
"Some parents are very embarrassed," said Ostroski. "I try to put them at ease and reassure them that it's not because their children are dirty. Kids play so closely together, they share things. They don't get it from animals."
"Apparently, the problem is common enough that they moved the treatment out with the shampoos," said Silverman. "But usually the parents still come to the pharmacy first and ask for the treatment. They want to know what they have to do to treat the[ir whole] house."
Nonetheless, some pharmacists interviewed said they would still prefer to see lice-treatment products stocked in front of the pharmacy. "It is something parents need counseling on," Ostroski said. Many pharmacists also said they kept some product at the pharmacy in case the supermarket ran out.