Notebooks? Check. Pens, pencils, calculator? Check, check, check. Head lice? Check.
Yes, head lice are a back to school fact of life – and probably no coincidence that September is Head Lice Prevention Month!
A communicabale disesase (medically known as pediculosis) head lice occur most frequently in elementary and pre-schools, where these tiny, sesame seed-sized insects easily move from child-to-child, head-to-head, when kids have physical play contact or share clothing, hats or brushes. Since many children contract head lice in summer camps or while on vacation (it can take up to two weeks before symptoms occur), they can unknowingly bring them back to school as well — and it only takes one or two kids for an infestation to begin.
Indeed, according to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) between 6 million to 12 million lice infestations occur annually in the United States, mostly in children aged 3 to 11.
While some studies suggest that girls get head lice more often than boys, and that the problem is less common among African Americans, that said, there is no demographic that is immune. From posh suburban and urban private schools to inner city learning centers, to small town farming community schools, lice seem to be the universal disease uniting school kids and horrifying parents nationwide.
In fact, in a clinical report issued recently by the American Academy of Pediatrics, experts noted that head lice are a significant cause of anxiety for not just kids, but their parents as well.
How head lice occur
Head lice are parasitic insects that live in hair. They feed on human blood several times a day and favor the scalp as their environment of choice, particularly the area behind the ears and near the neckline at the back of the head. Sometimes the eggs are found on the eyelashes or eyebrows.
Once the lice make their way to your hair, tiny hook-like claws at the end of each of their six legs allow them to hang on to each strand of hair. While no one really knows why they occur (personal hygeine plays no role — in fact lice favor clean hair over dirty hair!), once one child picks up an infestation, it can spread quickly and easily to others.
Symptoms of head lice
Although it sounds like a problem that’s easy to identify, experts say head lice is sometimes confused with simple dandruff or other dermatologic scalp conditions. How to tell the difference?
According to the CDC symptoms of head lice to look out for include:
- Tickling feeling of something moving in your hair.
- Itching, which is caused by an allergic reaction to lice bites.
- Difficulty sleeping since head lice are most active in the dark.
- Sores on the head caused by scratching. These sores can sometimes become infected with bacteria found on the person’s skin.
If your child has head lice: What to do
First, don’t panic. It’s an annoying, and even embarrassing condition but it’s not likely to cause any serious harm. Head lice don’t, for example, spread bacteria, viruses or other diseases, and they won’t affect pets.
Second, the National Pediculous Association (NPA) suggests physically removing the lice as the safest and best treatment. They recommend looking into your child’s head for evidence of lice – they’re tiny but you should be able to see them — and then using a lice comb to remove them. This is a small comb with ultra thin, close teeth that can literally separate the lice from the hair. NPA recommends the LiceMeister comb, which also contains a fully illustrated guide as to what to look for and how to remove the lice you do find.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a 1% solution of permethrin or pyrethrins, two powerful insecticides applied to the scalp, usually in two treatments about 9 days apart. According to the APA report on head lice, this appears to be one of the most effective treatment approaches.
If your child does not respond to these drugs, then AAP suggests a solution of another pesticide known as malathion 0.5%, for children over two years of age. In children under the age of 6 months the AAP recommends 5% benzyol alcohol as treatment.
For those parents looking for a drug-free, insecticide-free method of killing head lice, the APA recommends “wet-combing” (using a lice comb) or lilterally smothering the lice with a heavy oil such as petroleum jelly or Cetaphil. Some parents have suggested mayonnaise as a treatment, but the CDC says there’s no evidence this works. These treatments should be used weekly for at least two weeks, checking for infestations on a regular basis.
In addition there are also a number of pesticide-free head lice treatments that many parents feel safer using. Among them are LiceMD, an odorless, non-irritating pesticide-free preparation that has been shown in clinical studies to kill lice within 10 minutes. Another is LiceFree, a homeopathic remedy that is based in salt and some natural oils.
APA suggests that once a child is confirmed as having head lice, “all household members should be checked for head lice, and those with live lice or nits within 1 cm of the scalp should be treated.” In addition, they also suggest treating family members who share a bed with the person who is infested, even if no live lice are found.
Washing clothes, sheets, bedding and towels in ultra hot water and drying them in a hot dryer will pretty much kill any lice that have migrated to these objects.
Preventing head lice: What you can do
Since personal hygiene has little to do with contracting head lice, there is not a lot that can be done to protect your child. What can help, however, is teaching them not to share their hairbrush with anyone, as well as not sharing any hair accessories such as headbands, scarves, barettes or clips. They should also be taught not to try on a friend’s hat or allow anyone to try on their hat. These same strategies can be applied at home among siblings.
In addition, a new line of all natural children’s hair care products called ZippityDoos has been laboratory tested to repel head lice and could work to protect your child from an infestation. The all-natural products are gentle and safe enough to use daily, and they are also free of parabens and sulfates. The line include shampoos, conditioners, a leave-in detangler, stying gel and an all-purpose “shield spray” which can be used on any surface where lice can be transferred, such as hats, bedding, sheets, towels, combs or hair accessories.
The best advice: Experts say pay attention to your child, watch for symptoms, and treat early.
Colette Bouchez is an award-winning journalist and author of 10 books on health and wellness. Her latest book is “Green Fertility: Nature’s Secrets for Making Babies.”