It’s prevalent enough of a problem nationwide there’s even a Web site devoted to the issue of head lice: www.headlice.org.
Still, it can be an embarrassing problem for families and children, despite the frequency of occurrence and the ease of transmission — and the fact that nits don’t discriminate from one neighborhood to the next.
The key to combating the issue is diligence on the part of parents to check their children’s hair for the pesky critters, especially, and obviously, during the school year and busiest day-care times for families.
“We normally begin to see cases of head lice in October. It’s more common for children to get head lice in the late fall and winter, but there are occasional cases reported in warmer weather, too,” said Dale Lewis, principal of Petoskey’s Central Elementary School.
He said once the frigid temperatures typical to the first months of the new year come around, the head lice seem to dissipate some.
And some good news for parents: “For the last few years, I’ve seen fewer cases than normal. In a typical school year, we will have no more than three or four cases. The problem seems to be cyclical, however.”
Head lice are human parasites and require human blood to survive; that means they don’t affect the pets in the house. (That also means they are not environmental pests so pesticidal sprays for furniture and bedding are unnecessary and can pose a risk to health, according to headlice.org.)
Screening can go a long way in avoiding an infestation in the first place.
“It’s very helpful for parents to check their own child’s hair every month or so during the fall and winter months,” Lewis said. “Oftentimes, the nits, or eggs, are found first. If parents notice head lice or nits, they should check the rest of their family and contact the school and day care their child attends.”
Lewis noted that girls with longer hair seem to contract head lice more often than boys; further, longer, thicker hair also makes removal of nits more difficult. In all cases, the nits are especially difficult to remove, Lewis added, since the female louse actually “glues” the tear-shaped nits, which are the size of the head of a pin, to the hair shaft.
“Contrary to popular opinion, head lice cannot jump or fly,” Lewis said. “Transfer happens when there is direct contact from hair to hair, comb to hair, etc. Household pets don’t have head lice — humans are their only host.”
When a student contracts head lice or nits, Lewis said they need to stay home until treated with a pediculicide shampoo and the nits have been removed.
“We also check the child’s hair as soon as they arrive back to school, which is normally the next day after treatment,” he noted.. “If they still have head lice, they stay home until it’s taken care of.”
Each year, staff talks to students about ways to keep from getting head lice, including not sharing hats, scarves, pillows or combs. Each child also has his or her own locker at the school, and students are checked as a precaution once or twice a year in the classrooms.
“If a child is found to have head lice, he or she is sent home. Their parents receive a packet of information that offers suggestions for getting rid of the problem and preventing a re-infestation.”
Families need to remember as well that head lice do not pose a health danger to children, though it is uncomfortable for the child and frustrating to families.
“I try to help parents understand that head lice don’t seem to discriminate according to cleanliness or socio-economic background,” Lewis said. “Despite the parent’s best efforts, their child can get head lice. Catching head lice is similar to catching the cold or flu, although it’s tougher to get rid of, and requires some work.”
Headlice.org experts say that vacuuming is the safest and best way to remove lice or fallen hairs with attached nits from upholstered furniture, rugs, stuffed animals and cars. Also worth noting: Head lice do not survive long if they fall off a person and cannot feed.
Lewis added that the more thorough families are with cleaning clothes, bedding and stuffed animals, the less likely that the problem will return. “The key,” he said, “is to remove all nits and check frequently.”
As many as 6 to 12 million people worldwide contract head lice each year.
Both over-the-counter and prescription medications are available for treatment of lice infestations.
Head lice pesticide products contain both “active” and “inert” ingredients. An active ingredient is one that prevents, destroys or repels a pest. An inert ingredient is any ingredient in the product that is not intended to affect a target pest.
Exposure to inerts or solvents can result in toxic effects that may exceed the toxicity of the active pesticide ingredients. Many consumers are misled by the term “inert,” believing it to mean harmless, which isn’t always the case.
Non-toxic remedies are another choice for families, rather than pesticides. However, this does not mean that everything touted as “natural” is across-the-board safe.
Many who try “alternatives” have already had failure with readily available pediculicides from the local drugstore.
No matter which remedy you are attempting, wrapping the hair in plastic or a shower cap and putting the children to bed is no longer an accepted idea. It is also a source of potential harm to use a wrap with any of the pesticidal treatments (whether in bed or not) as it may alter its chemistry and absorption rates.
Effective screening and combing are the preferred complements to whatever course of action an individual selects
In the end, it’s best to discuss options with your pediatrician.
Head lice is technically known as pediculosis. Adult head lice are 2.1-3.3 mm in length. Head lice infest the head and neck and attach their eggs to the base of the hair shaft. Lice move by crawling; they cannot hop or fly.
There’s more to the story, however. Lice are parasitic insects that can be found on people’s heads and bodies, including the pubic area. Human lice survive by feeding on human blood. Lice found on each area of the body are different from each other. The three types of lice that live on humans are: Pediculus humanus capitis (head louse);
Pediculus humanus corporis (body louse, clothes louse); and Pthirus pubis (“crab” louse, pubic louse).
Only the body louse is known to spread disease.
Lice infestations are spread most commonly by close person-to-person contact. Dogs, cats, and other pets do not play a role in the transmission of human lice.
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control