When it comes to head lice, Ann Cipriani, coordinator of health services for Toledo Public Schools, has a message that might surprise a lot of parents.
“Head lice do not spread disease, therefore they are not considered a health hazard,” she says. “The worst damage that is done is through the social stigma.”
That stigma often translates into the stereotype that only ‘dirty’ people get it, but Mrs. Cipriani says, “Head lice love clean heads.”
While lice might be mostly harmless, this doesn’t mean parents want them sticking around. But where do they come from? What do they want from us?
What is lice?
A quick tutorial: Head lice are small insects (about as long as a sesame seed) that live in people’s hair and feed on their blood. These small yellow-white to grey-white insects ‘glue’ their eggs (called nits) to hair so that they do not get brushed off. Lice do not jump or fly and do not stay alive for long off the human head. Nits take six to nine days to hatch and seven or more days for the lice to become egg-laying adults.
Children are much more likely to get lice from family members and playmates than they are from classmates, but on occasion lice are contracted at school because children share combs, hats, clothing, barrettes, helmets, scarves and headphones. Urging your children to not share such items is a great way to make sure lice is not easily transmitted.
Parents and guardians can suspect their children have lice if they complain that their scalps are very itchy but the only way to know for sure is to look carefully through their hair. And remember, nits stick on the hair (unlike dirt or dandruff that can be brushed off). Common places to find lice are close to the scalp, the neckline and behind the ears.
If a school nurse determines your child has live lice, you will have to take him or her home. Students will be readmitted to school as soon as treatment is provided and there is no evidence of active infestation.
If you determine your child has lice, also check everyone living in the home. Apply an over-the-counter lice treatment to everyone with live lice or nits. Ask your pharmacist for a recommended product. Instructions must be followed exactly. If, after the treatment is done, your child still has lice, it is recommended that you talk to your doctor about a prescription.
Additionally, combing is an effective way to remove lice and nits. Nit combs should be metal and have long teeth. They can be found at your local pharmacy for about $10. The best way to remove nits is to wet the hair, part it into small sections and comb carefully through each section.
Make sure everyone in the home that have lice are treated on the same day.
Recognizing that such treatment can be expensive, the federal government has authorized Medicaid to pay for head lice treatment. Make sure you contact your doctor for a prescription.
Here are a few tips to get rid of the lice or nits in your home:
- Wash clothing and bedding in hot water (130 degrees F), then dry on a hot cycle for at least 20 minutes.
- Dry clean items that are not washable.
- Seal items in a plastic bag for two weeks to kill lice, as they won’t be able to get a ‘blood meal.’
- Wash combs, brushes, hair bands and barrettes with soap and water (130 degrees F) or soak them in rubbing alcohol or Lysol for one hour.
- Vacuum carpet and furniture. Do NOT use fumigant sprays which can be toxic if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
Mary-Beth Matthews is the Communications Manager at Toledo Public Schools (TPS). She earned her bachelor of arts degree in journalism from Marquette University in Milwaukee and was a long-time editor and reporter at The Blade before joining TPS in March 2014.