September is National Head Lice Prevention Month. We encourage parents, students, teachers and childcare professionals to be aware of this pest and understand prevention and treatment options without harmful chemicals.
During the back to school season, incidence of lice cases peak. Unfortunately, this year there has been an increase in lice that are that are pesticide-resistant. This can lead to dangerous self-treatments (such as kerosene), scores of exhausted parents and in some cases the urge to use highly toxic chemical pesticides* or dangerous repeated treatments.
In 25 states head lice have become highly resistant to the most commonly used lice shampoo treatments, including pyrethrins and the pyrethroid insecticide permethrin. Most states (104 out of 109 samples) tested so far have lice that are resistant to these over-the-counter lice treatment options (Yoon 2015). Because of this resistance to common pesticidal treatments, it’s important to keep in mind prevention, detection, lice life cycle and new less toxic options.
It’s important to remember that head lice do not transmit diseases and they can’t jump. Head lice can be a problem in any community and does not reflect poor hygiene or social status. Children are no longer required to stay home from school until ‘nit free.’ Lice are not transmitted from pets to humans and they are unable to survive away from a human host for more than about 48 hours. Eradiating lice is not a quick fix. No pesticide treatment of a classroom or school bus is necessary or beneficial. In any school classroom 1% head lice incidence is normal.
Help Prevent Head Lice
Sharing is one of the most important lessons we learn during childhood. Unfortunately, sharing certain items can lead to the transmission of head lice. The most common way for children to come in contact with head lice is by sharing hats, headphones, combs and brushes, sleeping bags, stuffed animals, clothing and even helmets.
What parents can do: Talking to your children about not sharing these items with others can go a long way to prevent your child from getting head lice. Keep long hair tied back during the school day. Avoid sharing brushes and combs at home.
What schools can do: Lice can travel from one child's jacket to another. Have children store their jackets and scarves inside their backpacks or in cubbies instead of hanging them on school hooks.
Early detection of individual lice is far easier to deal with than an advanced infestation.
What parents can do: Throughout the school year parents should inspect children weekly. If possible try to set up a regular routine. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes even if your child has thick hair.
What schools can do: Train school health personnel on how to perform proper early detection and remind teachers to look for signs of lice in the classroom-itchy head and scalp, scratching. Send home notices to the entire class if a child has been found with lice and encourage non-chemical treatment and prevention.
For more information, here’s a helpful update from University of Arizona, including details on products with benzyl alcohol, a less toxic option.
To read more about the resistant head lice, see this article.
*DDT, chlordane and other organochlorine insecticides have been banned in the United States. Since the EPA issued cancellation orders for lindane in 2006, dicofol and endosulfan are the only remaining organochlorines registered for pesticide use. The FDA still permits the use of lindane for treatment of head lice.