Parenting and Parasitology

A head louse from a member of the Cronin family. Note blood in abdomen.

A head louse from a member of the Cronin family. Note blood in abdomen.

One of the furthest things from your mind when that second little line appears on the pregnancy test kit is that as a new parent your on-the-job-learning Applied Parental Parasitology course is set to begin the minute the baby takes its first gulps of air and will continue until your darling reaches the age of majority. Whatever about all the rest of it (providing moral guidance, a stable home environment, love, nurturing, fending off would-be paramours) much of parenting revolves around ensuring that the brood are well fed, clean and healthy, and a function of the latter is keeping an eye out for infections, intrusions and infestations. This week it was brought home to me how much I still have to learn, eight years into Applied Parental Parastiology, when for the first time the old verruca let its presence be known on the foot of my daughter.

My daughter complained of a sore foot, a strange sensation in her sole, to be precise. We took a look and saw this wee black fibre-like body just under the skin, and surrounded by a clear zone no wider than a couple of millimetres.

“It’s a splinter,” I said.

I got the tweezers out and had a poke around.

“It doesn’t feel like a splinter,” I said. “It has no . . . substance.”

Then: “It wouldn’t be a verruca? Naw. People like us don’t get verrucas.”

We consulted our personal physicians, Dr Wikipedia and Prof Google.

“It’s a verruca,” they said. “Seek medical advice.”

The “people like us” phrase that issued from my mouth should have lit the warning lights. I had the same reaction when the kids got lice.

“People like us don’t get lice. We’re clean.”

And when the little one got worms.

“People like us don’t get worms. We wash our fruit and veg.”

And the time we all got flea bites.

“People like us . . .”

You get the idea.

I keep breaking the first rule of Applied Parental Parasitology: ditch the incredulity. Your kids (and you) can contract anything, anytime, anywhere. Bugs don’t make value judgments — they just hop from person to person. You have to keep an open mind, observe the symptoms, use the informational resources available to you, and take action. Over the course of eight years, my kids have succumbed to all sorts of undesirables I would never have expected middle class city kids to come into contact with.

Here’s some hard-won wisdom.

Lice: from the instant your munchkins start pre- or big-kids’ school, a regular lice-patrol protocol should be incorporated into the grooming and ablutions regime. A fine comb should be used to search for the adults, nymphs and eggs (known as nits). Hair is easier to fine comb when wet. If you find any crawlers then treat. Remember to go nuclear on bedclothes, brushes, scarves, coats, hair clips, towels, headrests, car seats — basically anything the little one’s head may have come in contact with (including Mum and Dad’s bonces). Follow to the letter the instructions of whatever treatment you use: most recommend a second treatment a week after detection in order to remove any hatchlings the first treatment may have missed. Lice watch must be stepped up at back-to-school time in September as this is the major annual peak of head-scratching (hygiene tends to lapse during the summer holidays). Speaking of which: at the merest hint of head-scratching, that fine comb should be drawn faster than you can say Clint Eastwood.

Worms: again scratching, although a little lower down on the human frame, should prick up your antennae on the worm front. The two tell-tale signs of worm infestation are bottom-scratching and constipation. If your kid is tending to pick at a certain nether area, it’s in one’s interest to be around when the next number two is done. Any wrigglers (white, thread-like, two-three millimetres long) and its time to pay a visit to the pharmacist. All members of the family should be treated and bedclothes should be changed. If the infestation is heavy, worms will be leaving the rectum and attempting to lay eggs outside the anus. This happens at night, and the sensation can be distressing for kids. Unfortunately these worms have to be physically removed — a very unpleasant midnight patrol. A layer of Vaseline around the anus can, by trapping the worms, ease the itching sensation. Between when the treatment is taken and when the worms are expelled, handwashing is very important. What you don’t want is to re-infect yourself or anyone around you with any lingering eggs.

So far my family has had visitors from four of the five living kingdoms. There have also been incursions from the non-living group of viral agents. Luckily, a heavy flu is the worst we’ve had to face from these sub-micron intracellular parasites. In my experience, the afflictions that can really grind you down are the trivial but persistent things like cold sores, mouth ulcers or eyelid cellulitis. Just when you think you’ve eliminated one outbreak, another pops up. I hope the verruca does not become as regular a visitor in our household as these. Whether it does or not, along with nit-picking and stool examination, sole searching will be added to the vigilance list in our household.


About ucronin

Microbiologist, brewer, writer, fan of James Joyce, guitar player and gardener, U. Cronin was born in the county town of Ennis, Co. Clare. He's spent much of his adult years moving country — between Spain and Ireland — and at present he is to be found back in his native town. Author of five novels and working on a sixth, U. is back in the lab and engaging his passion for looking for bugs using very bright lasers. Let's hope it turns out well!
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2 Responses to Parenting and Parasitology

  1. Oh, good heavens, this was both funny, and a little bit heartbreaking. ‘A visit from four of the five living kingdoms.’ Kinda had me in stitches.
    Hope all is on the mend. Lovely post.

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