Family Health

Back-to-School and Lice: Preventing the Parasite Kids Love to Share

Published: Sept. 27, 2019

What are lice?

Easily transferable, lice are tiny insects that attach themselves to human hair and feed off blood. An infestation can cause intense itching on the scalp and a rash around the hairline.

Although small, lice are visible under a bright light. They look like tiny seeds crawling around. Even though there are usually only about a dozen live lice on a person’s scalp at a time, hundreds of eggs may be present.

Lice are a nuisance, but they’re relatively harmless and not known to spread disease. While some people might think lice infestations are tied to poor hygiene, they’re really not. Infestations occur through close contact with an infected person and their belongings – something schools offer plenty of. Think: buses, closets and lockers.

Who is most at risk?

In the United States, up to 12 million children between ages 3 and 12 get lice every year. Kids are often more susceptible to lice infestations because of the diameter of their hair shaft. Lice can more easily cling to finer, thinner hair. Clean hair, dirty hair – it makes lice no difference. They’re searching their next meal of human blood.

Lice infestations can be stigmatizing. They can puts kids (and their parents) at risk for teasing, ridicule, social judgement and embarrassment – something that can be exacerbated by a school’s no-nit (no-egg) policy, in which a child is sent home for having lice.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), students don’t actually need to be sent home early and can return to class once treatment has begun. As a parent, it’s important to advocate for your child. But perhaps equally important is knowing how to prevent problems before they surface.

Can lice be prevented?

The spread of lice can absolutely be prevented by avoiding activities involving head-to-head contact or avoiding the use of other people’s head-touching items. Educate your kids in a way they’ll understand. Try these phrases and tactics:

  • “It’s so nice when our friends share! But we don’t use anything that touches their heads.”
    Show your kids examples of hats, pillows, stuffed animals, combs, brushes and hair accessories.
  • “High-fives or fist bumps – it’s fine to touch our friends’ hands! But our heads should never touch their heads.”
    Show them what head-to-head contact looks like.

While more research is needed, a number of studies suggest that certain plant oils such as rosemary, tea tree and citronella are effective at repelling lice. Keep in mind that many hair sprays and products containing these oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Being proactive can go a long way. While schools provide ample opportunity for lice infestations, sleepovers can also be problematic. Get in the habit of closely checking your child’s head when they return from a friend’s house or when your child’s school announces a lice infestation. And do it again a few days later. Catching and treating lice early will help protect others.

How do you stop the itch?

A lice infestation can be treated with over-the-counter or prescription medication, but always read the product instructions carefully. While not all treatments require the use of a fine-tooth nit comb, it’s never a bad idea to have one on hand.

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a lot of information and treatment tips, but don’t hesitate to contact your pediatrician if a lice infestation has you feeling overwhelmed.

What’s most important as you ride out your battle with lice is that you remain calm for your child. Let them know this isn’t their fault. No matter what kind of message they may have received at school or from their friends, reassure them they did nothing wrong. Educate them on how lice is spread and that with treatment, their pesky problem can and will go away.

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    About the Author

    As a pediatrician, Dr. Rosann Nichols is dedicated to providing answers for parents and their kids. As a mother of two children, she recognizes the struggles parents go through and assures them they are not alone. Dr. Nichols encourages parents to come to her with any concerns.

    Your family can visit Dr. Nichols at Methodist Physicians Clinic.

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