Just the Facts: Head Lice

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The American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) criticism of schools that force students with lice to stay home until their condition clears up has some educators and parents scratching their heads.

In a clinical report that contradicts current policy at many U.S. schools, the AAP states that no healthy child should be excluded from school because of head lice, arguing that these policies cause children to miss weeks of school—and some to even repeat a grade.

Presently many U.S. schools enforce a “no-nit” policy, meaning that students must stay home until their hair is free of the yellowish-white lice eggs known as nits. These tiny eggs attach themselves firmly to individual hair shafts and are difficult to remove. So stubborn are nits that they can survive the prescription or over-the-counter shampoos used to eliminate adult lice. Nit removal, a tedious and exhausting process, requires either a fine-toothed comb or that you pluck them out individually using tweezers.

Despite the inconveniences caused by lice and nits, children carrying them pose little risk to others, reminds the AAP. In fact, a child with an active head-lice infestation is likely to have had the infestation for a month or more by the time it’s discovered. As long as children with lice are discouraged from having direct head contact with others—and this includes sharing hats or brushes—they should be allowed to remain in class, says the AAP.

What Is Head Lice?
Head lice (or pediculosis) are tiny, wingless bugs about the size of a sesame seed that range in color from brown to gray. They live only on the human scalp and have six legs with tiny claws that allow them to grasp hair shafts. Head lice are parasitic, meaning they need to extract small amounts of blood from their host in order to survive. If deprived of blood, an adult louse living at room temperature will die in a day or so.

Though annoying, head lice rarely cause direct harm and shouldn’t be viewed as a medical or public health problem. At their worst, lice bites will cause itching and a loss of sleep. Still, many people are unreasonably fearful of lice because they don’t have all of the facts. Here’s what you should know:

  • Head lice have nothing to do with hygiene. In fact, lice prefer to live on clean, healthy scalps. They do not spontaneously generate from dirt, sweet or air. Head lice come from other head lice, just like every other species.

  • Head lice do not hop, jump or fly. Lice migrate through direct contact with an infested person and their belongings. For instance, if you hug someone who has lice and your heads touch, chances are good that you’ll contract lice. It’s also a good idea not to share personal items (such as hats, hair brushes and pillows) with an infested person.

  • Pets cannot give or catch head lice. Quite simply, head lice can live only on human scalps. Dogs and cats make lousy hosts, and lice will die swiftly if they try to make a home in animal fur.

  • Head lice have been around for thousands of years. Head lice have been discovered on ancient mummies and are considered an extremely resilient species. Lice and their eggs (nits) can easily survive hot water, shampoos and most insecticides. Because of this, the most effective (and time-consuming) lice-removal method involves daily brushing with a specially designed lice comb and the removal of nits with tweezers. Some parents and health professionals swear by soaking a child’s hair with olive oil before combing. Of this method, the Harvard School of Public Health finds no health risks but questions its effectiveness, stating that “data is lacking to support the [lice-removal] claims of olive oil’s efficacy."

What Can You Do About Head Lice?
For starters, don’t panic. Be mindful that a lice infestation is not life-threatening, poses no immediate danger to your child and seldom requires a trip to the doctor’s office or prescription medication. It is a mere inconvenience.

Getting rid of lice is a three-step process that usually takes a couple of weeks to complete:

  • Step 1: Kill all of the adult lice. Purchase a fine-toothed comb and a pair of tweezers. Wash your child’s hair thoroughly. (. and then brush the wet hair meticulously with a fine-toothed comb. You’ll begin to notice sesame seed-sized lice ensnared in the comb’s teeth. Dump them into a small plastic bag with a seal, making sure that the comb is freer of lice, before brushing the next section of your child’s hair. Repeat until you have finished combing your child’s entire head.

    Some parents purchase shampoos and pesticides specially formulated to combat lice. These products have a varying success rate and can sometimes do more harm than good. It’s a good rule of thumb to consult your pediatrician or pharmacist before attempting to use these products.

  • Step 2: Check for and remove all nits. Nits are smaller than adult lice and affix themselves to individual hair shafts, usually near the scalp. Remove them from the hair shaft with a fine-toothed comb. For more stubborn nits, pick them out one by one with tweezers. After doing this for hours, we’re guessing you’ll have a better appreciation for the word “nit-pick”.

  • Step 3: Clean the house and all of your child’s belongings. If there’s one thing lice hate, it’s dry heat. Be sure to throw your child clothes, teddy bears and bedding in the dryer for at least 20 to 30 minutes. This should kill both lice and their eggs. Don’t get too carried away, though. Lice cannot survive for long away from their human host—20 to 30 hours top. Once your child is lice-free, your house will follow suit.

Further Reading
Itching to know more about lice? Check out these helpful resources: