I became interested in this topic when I heard about lice outbreaks in both the Mason and Menard schools recently. After consulting Jennifer Moneyhon, the school nurse for Mason ISD, I found out that rumors and panic often cause parents to overreact, and treat their children with harsh chemicals when they may or may not even actually have lice. Head lice is a very common problem in schools, and as a parent of an elementary school child and a member of the School Health Advisory Committee, it is an ongoing concern for all of us. I thought that other parents and grandparents might want to know more about this topic, and assure them that it is not anything more than a big nuisance. If we all work together to recognize the problem in our children we can minimize the spread! (And just to reassure you, there are NO students out of school in Mason ISD with head lice at this time!)
Head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis) feed on blood, primarily on the heads of children. Infestation by head lice is called pediculosis. Fortunately, they do not transmit disease, although their presence can be very bothersome. These lice inject a saliva into their hosts as they feed to prevent the blood from clotting. This results in itching which at best is annoying and at worst can result in infection if scratched too vigorously. Close inspection usually reveals the presence of active lice. Anyone can become infested; the presence of head lice is not the result of unclean conditions.
Adult head lice are about 1/8 inch long, grayish, flattened, and wingless. Their legs are claw-like, designed to hold onto hair. These lice excrete partially digested blood which can appear as ‘black dandruff’. Lice eggs, commonly referred to as nits, are whitish, oval and the size of a pinhead (1/30 inch long). They are attached to hair near the scalp. Nits that are found further than 1/2 inch from the scalp nearly always have hatched or died.
Human lice have the potential to transfer from person to person very quickly. The head louse spreads from an infested person to others during direct contact and indirectly when infested items such as hats, scarves, coats, combs, and brushes are shared. School-age children are at risk because they are more likely to share such items, and to play with their heads in close contact. Educate your children about how lice infest people. Children can help prevent infestations by not sharing combs, brushes, clothes, scarves, and similar articles with classmates. Head lice do not feed on cats, dogs, or other animals.
Control of human lice typically involves the use of an insecticide together with the mechanical removal of eggs and lice, plus sanitation of infested articles such as hair brushes, hats, scarves, clothes, and bedding. Insecticides known as “pediculicides” include over-the-counter products and physician prescribed medications. For information on controlling lice and for specific chemical control products refer to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and discuss control options with a physician. It is essential to apply products exactly as directed on the label. Make sure you check all members of the household, not just children, and treat anyone with lice or nits. In addition, it is important to note that eggs of human lice are not killed by insecticides, and a repeat application typically is required in 7-10 days in order to kill newly hatched larvae.
Physical removal is an important tactic in head lice control. Use nit combs or cat flea combs to remove the lice and eggs. You can purchase nit combs through pharmacies or online on the internet. Because eggs can hatch for up to 10 days after they are laid, comb hair daily for two weeks after you find the last live head lice, to remove any young that have emerged. Nits found further than 1/2 inch from the scalp are probably not viable and can be ignored, but just to be safe, all nits must be removed before your child can return to school.
Head lice that are dislodged can possibly survive for 2-3 days off a host. All bedding and clothing of infested people should be washed and dried at a high temperature (150°F or higher). Pillows or other nonwashable items should be placed in plastic bags and placed in a freezer for several days.
You should thoroughly vacuum living and sleeping areas, including mattresses, pillows, and furniture (don’t forget your car!) and discard the vacuum bag immediately outside of the home. It is suggested that items that cannot be safely washed or cannot fit in the freezer, such as stuffed animals, should be dry cleaned or stored outside the home/bagged for a minimum of two weeks.
Clean combs and brushes in hot, soapy water. Water should be at least 130 degrees F, and it is advisable to let combs and brushes soak in the hot water for 10 minutes. Never treat furniture, bedding, floor or walls inside a school or home with insecticide to control head lice.
There is no evidence that any of the so-called “home remedies” control head lice. Recent research under scientifically controlled conditions has shown that the following are of little or no effectiveness in treating for head lice: vinegar, isopropyl alcohol, olive oil, mayonnaise, melted butter, and petroleum jelly. Also, none of the tested materials killed head louse eggs. Additional research into the potential for “drowning” head lice showed that head lice survive being totally submerged in water for up to 8 hours.
If the chemical treatment fails, reread the insecticide product directions very carefully to be sure it is being used properly. Recheck all family members for the presence of lice and treat all infested people at the same time. If you continue to see head lice after two applications and do not feel you are eliminating them, switch to a product containing a different active ingredient. Do not over apply these insecticide products. Repeatedly applying a shampoo or lotion in the hope that it will eliminate head lice will not improve its effectiveness but will put the child or adult at greater risk because of increased exposure to insecticides. Although it can be challenging to eliminate head lice, you must be patient and persistent when dealing with an infestation. Use caution regardless of the treatment method and always keep the individual’s safety as a top priority.
Sources: Jennifer Moneyhon, MISD nurse; the University of Minnesota Extension Service and Purdue Extension Entomology