By Marcia Anderson
When I visited a local school, I was asked by the nurse about strategies for dealing with head lice – tiny parasites that attach to human head hair and feed on blood through the skin. She said there was a problem in preschool and kindergarten classes where she suspected the children were passing lice through the school’s common bike helmets. The children shared the helmets when taking turns riding tricycles.
The nurse asked three important questions. How should they treat the helmets? Is there something they could spray in the helmets between uses? How should they deal with head lice in the school?
Head lice are very contagious and are transferred by sharing clothes, hairbrushes, combs, pillows, hair decorations, and hats with somebody who has lice. Applying a pesticide to the helmets, in the classrooms, on children’s hats or their clothes isn’t recommended.
To control lice in helmets, the National Pediculosis Association recommends vacuuming and wiping out the helmets between uses. They note that a louse can survive less than 24 hours away from a human host, but the nits (eggs) on a hair left in the helmet could survive up to 10 days. Detachable foam fitting pads and the nylon straps can also be washed.
The Centers for Disease Control’s head lice guidance states that lice are spread most commonly by direct contact with the hair of an infected person. Spread by contact with inanimate objects and personal belongings may occur but is very uncommon. The feet of lice are specially adapted for holding onto human hair. They would have difficulty attaching to smooth or slippery surfaces like plastic, metal, polished synthetic leathers, and other similar materials. However, hairs left in sports helmets may have lice attached to them so they must be cleaned between uses. It is best to have helmets specific to each child to avoid sharing.
Treatment on clothes, hats and other head gear. There are many ways to treat head lice. The EPA provides information on lice and their control and recommends an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach, especially in schools and childcare centers. IPM is a smart, sensible, and sustainable approach to pest control that focuses on prevention.
Once a louse has been identified, the first step is to begin sanitation efforts by washing and heat drying all of the belongings that may have been exposed. This will kill all the head lice and eggs that may be on hairs that are attached to the clothing, pillow cases or other items. Next monitor – check the hair and scalp frequently by combing with a nit comb to see if there are any other lice or eggs.
Prevention. There are different ways to prevent exposure to head lice. Tell your children not to share combs, brushes, hats or clothing with anyone. Vacuum frequently and wash and heat dry anything they may have shared.
School Head Lice Policies. When children return to school in the fall, who is responsible when it comes to head lice? According to Dr. Richard Pollack of the Harvard School of Public Health, “School policies are outdated and written during a time when body lice was a growing concern among residents….However, times have changed and head lice is not the epidemic that it is thought to be. Common misconception of head lice can lead to over diagnosis and unnecessary action.” An effective head lice policy should be included in each school district’s IPM plan. The American Association of Pediatrics guidance on treating head lice states that “No healthy child should be excluded from, or miss school because of head lice and no-nit policies should be abandoned.”
IdentifyUS, LLC, provides a helpful flow chart on managing presumed head lice infestations in schools and a similar chart for home use. Harvard University also provides an informative head lice question and answer page. For even more information on head lice read the Spokane (WA) Regional Health District’s Guidelines for Controlling Head Lice. To learn why lice may be harder to control today than 20 years ago read the 2012 EPA blog Persistent and Possibly Resistant Head Lice.
Having a well-conceived head lice policy, a current IPM-based plan for dealing with head lice, and useful reference materials will enable schools everywhere to deal with the problem if it pops up.
About the Author: About the Author: Marcia is with EPA’s Center of Expertise for School IPM in Dallas, Texas. She holds a PhD in Environmental Management from Montclair State University along with degrees in Biology, Environmental Design, Landscape Architecture, and Instruction and Curriculum. Marcia was formerly with the EPA Region 2 Pesticides Program and has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology, and Oceanography at several universities.