What You Should Know About Head Lice
SHOCK, shame, and guilt are typical reactions of parents whose children contract head lice. “It’s embarrassing,” said one mother, “because you feel that people think you are not clean.”
But is there reason to be embarrassed if your household contracts lice?
Head lice are tiny, wingless insects that are generally about a sixteenth of an inch [1-2 mm] long, about the size of a sesame seed. They are grayish-white to tan in color. The stigma associated with having them stems from the misconception that lice afflict only people who do not practice good personal hygiene. But, actually, head lice prefer a clean environment, so even those who bathe regularly may get them.
Besides head lice, two other lice varieties are common to man: body lice and pubic lice. The pubic louse, which is transmitted through intimate sexual contact, is found in coarse hair in the pubic area, under armpits, in beards and mustaches, and occasionally in eyelashes. It is shorter and shaped like a small crab, hence its nickname, the crab louse.
The body louse, unlike the head and pubic lice, does not live on people. It lives in garments close to the skin and crawls onto the body to feed. The body louse is widespread among people exposed to overcrowded and unclean conditions. In times past it has been a carrier of a number of diseases, including typhus, trench fever, and relapsing fever, but these pestilences are rarely spread by lice today.
How Widespread a Problem?
The medical journal Archives of Dermatology said: “Pediculosis capitis [head-lice infestation] has become a widespread problem in the United States, reaching epidemic proportions in some areas.” Health authorities estimate that six to ten million individuals in the United States are affected annually.
Based on studies conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, a significant number of students tested had head lice. In fact, Professor David Taplin, of the University of Miami School of Medicine says: “In some areas the incidence is as high as 40 percent.”
Yet, concern about the high incidence of infestation is not limited to the United States. The science magazine Discover reports: “From Canada and Chile, from England, France, Italy, East Germany, the Soviet Union, even Australia, come reports of head lice infesting as many as 50 per cent or more of the children in some schools.”
How Are They Transmitted?
Since lice cannot fly or jump, they are transmitted primarily by direct contact with an infested person, usually by head-to-head contact. Research conducted in Pennsylvania classrooms revealed that 73 percent of all infestations occurred in this manner. Some feel the figure is much higher. Dennis White, director of the Arthropod-Borne Disease Program, New York State Department of Health, says: “Direct contact accounts for about 90 percent of all infestations.”
Other ways you can pick up head lice from someone infested is by sharing comb, barrette, scarf, hat, headband, towel, stereo headphones, swimming cap, or other personal items. This is because lice are capable of surviving up to 20 hours (some claim 48) away from a host.
Another reason lice are so widespread today is that many parents do not work with the problem. Deborah Altschuler, executive director of the National Pediculosis Association, says that “people are often too busy to remember to take the time and make an effort to check their children’s hair for ‘nits’ [louse eggs].” The sad truth is that in the 1980’s infestation with lice is a result of ignorance and apathy.
Protecting Your Family
The primary symptom of lice infestation is itching. The bite of the head louse is irritating to the scalp, causing itching and occasionally redness. Be suspicious if you see your child scratching his head frequently. Careful inspection requires bright light and a magnifying glass. Since the louse is quite mobile and readily avoids detection, look for its eggs (nits), which are firmly attached to the hair close to the scalp. The nit ranges from light yellow to tan in color. Dermatologists have identified at least 12 conditions that are commonly mistaken for infestation with nits. Therefore, use the magnifying glass for a thorough inspection of the head. Concentrate around the ears and the nape of the neck.
If either lice or nits are found, treatment with a special shampoo, cream, or lotion (pediculicide) will kill the lice. To prevent their spread, everyone infested should receive treatment at the same time. So check the entire family before beginning treatment.
Pediculicides do not always kill nits attached to the hair. Any remaining eggs will hatch within seven to ten days, so a second treatment with the pediculicide may be necessary to kill any surviving lice. A note of caution, however: All pediculicides contain small amounts of insecticide that if improperly used, may produce serious side effects. Therefore, carefully follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
If pediculicides are not available in your area, alternate methods of treatment may be used. Many authorities recommend removing the nits with a special fine-tooth comb. In addition, the medical textbook Clinical Dermatology: A Color Guide to Diagnosis and Therapy suggests: “The cement holding nits to the hair shaft may be dissolved with vinegar compresses applied to the hair for 15 minutes.”
Even more effective is shaving the head. Some have also found that applying a small amount of kerosene to the scalp for 15 to 20 minutes will kill both lice and nits. Care, however, should be exercised, since kerosene may cause local irritation, and if it gets in the eyes, it can be painful. Kerosene can also be toxic if inhaled, and it will catch fire if near a flame.
Important too is the treatment of bedding, clothing, and other personal articles. Wash and then dry them in a hot dryer for at least 20 minutes to kill the lice along with the nits. Vacuum mattresses, upholstered furniture, and other items that are not washable in order to get rid of all living nits or lice. Treatment is an involved process, but it is necessary in order to prevent the perpetuation of lice in your family.
Although it is not possible to be immune to the infestation of lice, you can greatly reduce the likelihood of contracting them by following a few simple guidelines. Encourage your children to avoid sharing combs, brushes, and other personal items that can easily transmit lice. If possible, have your children sleep in separate beds. Keep long hair in braids or a ponytail to help reduce head-to-head contact. And finally, if your child does get lice, don’t panic. Pediculosis is rarely a serious affliction. It’s also very common and one of the best-kept secrets in town.
[Box on page 26]
An Age-Old Problem
Head lice have been plaguing humans for thousands of years. The Medical Post of November 15, 1988, reports: “Lice have been found attached to the hair of Egyptian mummies, pre-Columbian Indians from Peru and prehistoric Indians from the American southwest.
“Then as now, lice had little respect for royalty, rank or religious piety.
“They were found in substantial quantities on combs and hair samples from Herod’s palace, from the ancient settlements around Masada, and from caves at Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls, the oldest known biblical manuscripts, were discovered.”
Nit combs used thousands of years ago are remarkably similar to the ones used today. The combs were usually made of wood, but ivory combs were found in the ancient palace at Megiddo. When nit combs in museum collections were examined closely, they were found to have many lice and nits on them.
Dr. Kosta Mumcuoglu, of the Hebrew University-Hadassah medical school, observed: “Considering the numbers of lice and eggs on the combs, these were apparently very effective delousing devices.”
[Picture on page 27]
Head louse (greatly enlarged)
Photo by courtesy of Beecham Products U.S.A.