Lice Emergency?

Have you ever had this experience—your child pulls out of their backpack a notice from the school nurse, informing you that there has been a lice outbreak in your child’s class or school? Have you had that sinking feeling? Did your scalp start itching right away? Did you get worried that if your child has lice, the other parents will think you are a bad parent?

If you have experienced any of these fears and emotions, you should first of all know that you aren’t alone. Most parents reading that notice from the school nurse experience one or more of those feelings. The second thing you can do is arm yourself with knowledge. Knowing about the different types of lice, how to treat and help prevent it, and keeping a watch out for lice is your best defense.

Some Information About Lice

There are three types of lice—head lice, body lice, and pubic lice.[i] Only body lice are known to spread disease—and with most kids, head lice are generally the most common.

  • Lice are tiny insects, and they are parasites—they need a human host to survive. Like mosquitoes, they pierce your skin and feast on your blood.
  • An infection with head lice is technically called “pediculosis” (pronounced ped-ick-you-low-sis).
  • A head lice infestation does not happen because your child is dirty or has poor hygiene habits. The cleanest child in the world can get head lice if he or she does any of the following: puts on a hat or scarf that was worn by someone with head lice; gets his or her head or hair close to someone with head lice; uses a comb or a brush that has been used by someone with head lice; shares items like towels, washcloths, pillows, blankets, barrettes, or hair ties with anyone who has head lice.

Common Myths About Lice

The following are common myths about lice that are not true:

  • Lice can fly. No, they can’t. They have no wings and can only crawl.
  • Pets carry lice. No—Fido and Fluffy do not carry human head lice—only humans do, because the lice like only human blood.
  • Lice can’t live on short hair, or they prefer long hair. No—lice don’t care much about hairstyles. They cling to human hair and get their blood meals from human skin. As they attach themselves about ¼ inch from the scalp, the length of the hair doesn’t really factor into it.
  • Head lice are very contagious. Not really—they can be spread, but because the nits are glued onto the hair shaft and the adults can only crawl, some form of head-to-head contact is necessary for the lice to transfer from one child’s (or adult’s) head to another.

Where and How Do I Check for Lice?

  • Use a magnifying glass and a bright light to check for head lice. Lice tend to avoid bright light, so that can allow you to see the lice move as well as identify lice and nits. Lice and their eggs are most often found around and behind the ears, along the hairline and at the neck. You can use a lice comb on your child’s hair and check the comb for nits, nymphs, and adult lice.
  • Lice can sometimes be found on eyelashes and eyebrows, but this is much less common.
  • If you aren’t certain whether your child has lice, ask the school nurse, your physician, or the local health department to double check.

What Are Some of the Symptoms of Head Lice?

  • an itchy scalp
  • a sensation of something crawling on the scalp
  • tiny spots of blood on the scalp—these can become infected especially if your child keeps scratching.

What About My School’s “No Nit” Policy?

While each school and school district may have its own policy, you should know that both the American Academy of Pediatrics[i] and the National Association of School Nurses[ii] have recommended that schools change their “no-nit” policy, which means that children need to be kept out of school until they are completely free of nits and lice. Both groups now recommend that children can be allowed in school once they have begun the treatment(s) to get rid of the lice.