Lice in schools can present real problem for parents

Diane Sieker photo

As much as people like to think that in this modern day and age, they are immune and safe from creepy crawly parasites, the common human head louse goes and proves them wrong.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Lice are parasitic insects that can be found on people’s heads and bodies, including the pubic area. Human lice survive by feeding on human blood. Lice found on each area of the body are different from each other.”

There are three types of lice that live and thrive on people. These are Pediculus humanus capitis or head louse, Pediculus humanus corporis or body louse and Pthirus pubis or pubic louse. Only the body louse is known to spread disease.

Lice become an issue in crowded areas, such as schools. It seems that every year reports of infestations come home to parents, with instructions on lice removal from their children’s heads and bedding.

Normally the lice are detected by the discovery of their tiny white eggs, which are cemented to individual hairs on the head. These eggs are called nits.

The insects are a significant nuisance problem. Traditionally, head lice policies in schools stressed that a child infested could not return to school until no nits were found in their hair.

It is essential to stay on top of a potential infestation.

Early detection of head lice can be made through routine screening by parents and caregivers. Spotting nits is the first phase, then a thorough treatment. Commercial insecticide shampoo kits with fine combs to pull nits off the hair shafts are readily available and easy to use.

Adult head lice are gray or brown, wingless insects approximately one eighth inch in length. Females lay eggs by cementing them to the hairs near the scalp. These pests do not fly or jump and can be spotted by parting the hair and examining near the scalp, frequently near the ears and the back of the neck.

Children ages three to 11 years old are at highest risk for head lice infestation.

There is a lack of evidence illustrating that routine class or schoolwide screening reduces lice infestation rates. Many schools do not have the resources to do routine checks. Parents need to examine their children regularly. If lice are seen on a child at school, the parents will be called to pick up the student at the end of the school day and be given educational materials regarding lice infestations. Pulling a child from class in the middle of the day can cause self-esteem issues and unwanted teasing from their peers.

All members of the family should be checked for head lice and treated if needed. The day following treatment, the child should be re-checked and admitted to class. If there are lice still present, the parent should be informed immediately.

Some children have chronic infestations. Schools try identify these cases, as it may signify other family or socio-economic issues.

At home, bed linens should be laundered and combs, brushes and picks soaked in hot water for about 10 minutes. Pillows and bedding may have nits or lice on them but are not usually sources of infestation. These items can be put in a dryer and run very hot for 20 minutes, vacuumed or placed in sealed plastic bags for two weeks to kill hatching lice. Nits take six to nine days to hatch and are unlikely to hatch away from the scalp.

Parents need to understand that the most important components of head lice control are a single treatment, and reapplication if live lice are found seven to 10 days later. Nit combing should be employed as well. Head lice that are resistant to some of the commonly available insecticides in treatment shampoos have been found in California, and therefore, not all lice may be killed by this treatment. Consistent combing and removal of nits is effective and necessary.

Over-the-counter treatments are available at pharmacies, big box stores and markets.

There is no conclusive scientific evidence to support the use of vinegar, isopropyl alcohol, tea tree oil, enzyme-based compounds or other alternative products advertised to kill the nits or lice. Similarly, there are no conclusive scientific data to support claims that mayonnaise, olive oil, butter, petroleum jelly or other products on the hair suffocate the pests. Drowning lice is also an ineffective way to kill them.

Natural or herbal products are not regulated for safety by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for lice treatment. .

For more information, visit the California Department of Public Health at

Diane Sieker can be reached by email at