Head lice has become a significant problem facing American families today. In fact, head lice is the second leading cause of absenteeism from schools, just after the common cold. In 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its guidelines urging schools to allow children with nits (lice eggs) to remain in school as nits are not transferable until after live bugs emerge and mature. This has sparked debate on this topic among pediatricians, educators, school nurses, and parents who attempt to weigh the potentially increased risk of lice transmission against the cost of missed school days. An estimated 6-12 million cases are reported each year among school age children and this is likely low; many cases go unreported as families often hide in shame for fear that their children will be ostracized.
Head lice are insects that live on human heads and are transferred from person to person through direct contact. Head lice can not hop, jump, or fly so people need to be in close enough contact for the bug to crawl from one head to another. Occasionally, a louse is transferred through a vector such as a hat or on a chair, but this is the exception; lice only survive for a day or so off the head and do not like to leave their food source unless there is a fresh food source nearby i.e. another human head.
In addition, the only criteria that head lice use in determining which head to go to is proximity. If you are near an infested person, then you are vulnerable. Head lice need to be able to adhere to the hair and then use it as a ladder of sorts to get to the scalp where they can get the blood on which they feed three times daily. This begs the question: what type of hair is attractive to head lice? The answer: any type, but the cleaner the hair the easier it is for the louse to attach and makes its way to the scalp. That’s right; lice like clean hair. Dirty hair is generally covered with oil which makes it more challenging for the louse to attach to.
Let’s review: lice are more likely found on children and adults with good hygiene (clean hair) and those who are social (in close contact with others). Children whom we treat are usually socially busy, active on sports teams, well-groomed, etc. The child who spends most of his or her time alone at home is not a high-risk candidate for head lice. It is safe to state that if your child has head lice you are doing nothing wrong and neither is your child.
The sooner we get our heads on straight about head lice and what it means to be one of millions of kids diagnosed with it each year, the sooner we can drop the stigma that has been associated with lice over the decades. When we are no longer embarrassed about having lice in our families, we will be more open with our children’s friends so that they too will be able to get checked and if necessary treated before passing it along to others. We will feel comfortable reporting incidences to schools so that if there is a cluster, lice treatment information can be sent home to parents. When we are not ashamed or feel that somehow we have been remiss as parents, we will reach out for help to treat our own children so that we can stop spinning wheels using chemicals that studies show do not work. Two recent studies, one at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst conducted in 2014 and one at Southern Illinois University done in 2015 show that lice have mutated and are highly resistant to many lice pesticides. Once we accept that head lice are commonplace and that no one is immune, only then will we be able to reverse the trend line that reflects the growth in the incidence of head lice.Visit Our Lice Education Center