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Published December 03, 2012, 11:40 PM

Lice: Tips for getting past freak-out factor, ridding child, home of pests

FARGO – Head lice can happen to anyone, but parents react much differently when they find out their child has a case of the critters than they do when their son or daughter comes home with the sniffles.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

FARGO – Head lice can happen to anyone, but parents react much differently when they find out their child has a case of the critters than they do when their son or daughter comes home with the sniffles.

“The idea of thinking of bugs on your body is alarming to most people, and I think that’s why it does cause that emotional response and reaction,” said Christy Elias, district school nurse for the Moorhead Schools.

Even though they’re relatively harmless, there’s a social stigma associated with head lice that often has to be dealt with alongside the creepy critters.

Elias stressed that having a child with lice is by no means a sign of failure on the part of the parents and has nothing to do with anyone’s socioeconomic status, how clean they are or their hygiene.

“This is more common than most people are aware of,” she said.

The good news is lice are treatable, generally don’t cause medical problems, and never carry or spread disease, Elias said.

It’s nothing that will endanger the child, but it hits parents more emotionally when their child gets lice than when they get something like a cold or flu, said Nancy Leith, Fargo Cass Public Health nursing manager, who is in charge of nurses for Fargo Public Schools.

“They’re not life-threatening,” Leith said. “It’s just overwhelming for families when they get it.”

Desi Fleming, Fargo Cass Public Health director of nursing, said the social stigma has been around forever because people have falsely thought it was related to socioeconomic status or a person’s environment.

“It’s not,” she said. “Anybody can get head lice.”

Sherry Olslund, West Fargo Public Schools school nurse, said head lice is something that’s come up here and there throughout the school year for as long as she’s worked in the school district.

“For the most part, kids take it in stride,” she said. “We try our best to not make the child feel bad about it. It’s not something the child can help.”

Parents often find lice on their children and report it to the school, but sometimes it’s a school nurse or health assistant who finds it after a teacher notices a student has been scratching his or her head more than usual.

“A lot of times kids will come in and say their heads are itching, and it might be caught that way as well,” Elias said.

Schools rely on parents to report lice when they find it, she said.

“The only way we can combat it at school is with collaboration with the parents,” Elias said.

Children are checked for lice before they are allowed back into school, and the schools work confidentially with the children and parents to avoid the stigma that can be associated with lice, school nurses said.

But kids don’t hold that stigma among each other and will sometimes walk out of a nurse’s office and announce that he or she has head lice, Elias said.

Young children, especially in the preschool and early elementary age-group, are at higher risk for getting lice because of how they play and interact, she said.

And girls are more likely to get head lice than boys, possibly because of their play styles and sharing personal items, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The most common ways to contract lice are through direct contact with either someone who has it or with the personal items, like hats and coats, of someone who has lice, she said.

It’s much more difficult to get lice than illnesses like a cold, flu, pink eye or strep throat and since lice do not hop, jump or fly, sitting near someone with head lice will not increase the risk of getting lice, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.

Transmissions in schools are also rare, the department states. It’s more common to get head lice from family members, overnight guests and playmates who spend a lot of time together, according to the department.

“It’s a misconception that schools are just the breeding grounds for these (lice), and that’s not the case,” Fleming said.

Detection and treatment

It is important to have a trained person check the child suspected of having lice because the eggs often look like dandruff, Elias said.

As parents brush along a child’s hair, if the white specks move, it’s not lice eggs, she said.

“Eggs are very cemented to hair shaft and scalp,” she said.

Viable nits (lice eggs) are usually found at the nape of the neck or behind the ears, within a quarter-inch of the scalp, according to the CDC.

Children who have lice need to stay home until it’s treated, school nurses said. But that could be as little as one day, Olslund said.

Parents can treat the lice with over-the-counter medicated shampoos, Elias said.

“It’s really important that family members follow the package directions,” she said. “If it’s applied incorrectly, the efficacy is lower.”

The North Dakota Department of Health says the second shampoo treatment, completed nine days after the initial treatment, should kill any newly hatched lice prior to them maturing and gaining their ability to lay nits, but Elias recommends removing the nits because they sometimes survive the shampoo.

A lice or nit comb is most effective at removing nits and it works best on slightly damp hair, according to the health department. Make sure to clean the comb after combing out a nit or louse, the department states on its website.

Limited research has shown hot air treatments like the LouseBuster are effective in treating head lice, but hair dryers are not an effective means to get rid of head lice, the department states.

Fargo company Nit Picky!, a sister company of Lil Whipper Snippers children’s hair salon in Fargo, offers pesticide-free, chemical-free lice removal products as well as LouseBuster treatments, which cost $239 per treatment and kills head lice and their eggs using controlled, heated air.

The process is guaranteed for 48 hours if they are able to check everyone in the house for head lice, said Brandi Koffler, owner of Nit Picky!

To contact Nit Picky!, call (701) 318-9770.

Parents must also eliminate the source of the contamination by washing bedding, coats, hats and stuffed animals in hot water that is at least 130 degrees and treating them in the laundry dryer for at least 20 minutes, Elias said. Mattresses, furniture and carpeted areas should also be vacuumed, she said.

Items that cannot be washed need to be placed in sealed plastic bags and left outside for 10 to 14 days, Elias said.

“The biggest key with the treatment is that you do the shampoo and clean the home environment at the same time,” Leith said. “If you do the shampoo and then leave the home environment for a day or two, you’ve defeated the purpose of doing the shampoo and vice versa.”

Olslund said while it’s something nobody wants to deal with, it’s important parents know the facts rather than overreact to the problem.

Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt contributed to this report.


Lice lowdown:

• Shorter hair may make it easier to locate and remove lice and nits but does not reduce the risk of infestation.

• Lice treatment should never consist of toxic and/or flammable household products.

• Pesticides intended for use on insects or bugs other than head lice, or pesticides intended for use on animals, should not be used on humans. Every year children are killed or seriously burned as a result of these types of products.

• Never put a child to bed with a shower cap or plastic covering his or her head because they could suffocate.

• Head lice generally cannot survive more than 24 to 36 hours at room temperature off of a human.

• Viable nits can survive for 10 to 14 days off of a human, but they need an ideal temperature to hatch and must find a human within hours of hatching to survive.

• Head lice are specific to humans. You cannot give your pets lice.

Source: North Dakota Department of Health