The Facts of Lice

Woman with long hair

Note: This article was written several years back and some of the details may therefore be outdated.

I have become a lice “expert”. I know their life cycle, how many eggs are laid per day and even how and when the lice mate. I didn’t choose to become an expert. Unfortunately, once you’ve gone head to head with these lousy critters, it’s hard not to develop expertise. I have learnt that it’s normal to start scratching one’s scalp within a few minutes of talking about lice. That’s about now. I have also learnt that contracting lice is akin to leprocy. People take a few steps backwards when they hear that your child has it. Truth be told, I was much the same before I experienced it first hand. It’s one of those things that you swear will never happen to you or your children. It’s something that only other people’s children get and especially if they come from lower class families and live in dirty homes. All not true. In fact, lice prefer clean hair and know no socio economic boundaries.

In the war to combat lice, or pediculosis ( a word less likely to induce scratching), parents and schools need to unite to form a more powerful army. Without the alliance of one with the other, the war will not be won. In a comprehensive document on dealing with pediculosis, the York Region District School Board, in Ontario, outlines their policies and procedures. Among their concerns are “the stimatization associated with pediculosis, disruption of daily schedule, communicability, inappropriate use of medicated shampoo and other related treatment procedures and lack of consistent and accurate information.” Furthermore, they believe that the “dignity and feelings of the pupil should be given the highest priority.”

Rhonda Noble is the Principal of Wells Street Public School in Aurora, Ontario. She speaks proudly of how school personnel and especially parents have banded together to support one another and to help fight infestations of lice. Catherine Boase and Donna Frey were two such parents who approached their school council two years ago to make recommendations about working together. Boase, with a daughter in Grade 1 at the time, and an “expert” herself, remembers how frantically she worked to rid lice in her home only to find that there were others in her child’s class and school still with lice. Mortified at the thought of her daughter recontracting pediculosis, she called public health for further information and suggestions. She recalls in graphic detail when she first realized how hardy the lice were. “I used my nail to crush a louse the size of a pin head between two paper towels. When I looked inside, the louse was still crawling!!” It was then that she knew how great her battle would be. Ultimately, a group of up to eight parent volunteers came together at different times to form a team of dedicated head checkers. They come together a minimum of three times per year and spend the better part of a day checking approximately 356 heads at their school.

The most prevalent times for children to come to school with lice is after school breaks March , December and after the summer holidays.

Along with checking at scheduled times, volunteers at Wells Street Public School may be available to check classes in which a child has been identified as having pediculosis. If a volunteer is not available, then checking becomes the responsibility of school personnel. Noble follows the Board’s policy when sending out a letter to inform the parents of the infected child’s classmates. As well, she follows Board policy by asking the parent of the affected child to sign a certification of treatment letter before returning the child to school. Upon re entering, the student is checked by Noble or another staff member for lice or nits (eggs). If either are present, the child is not allowed to re enter the classroom. If the head is clean, the child may be re admitted but is checked again the following week and then again two weeks later.

Noble is pleased to note that their hard work has paid off. “It seems that our cases have dropped fairly dramatically” on a school wide basis, she says.

However, stopping the spread of lice takes more than checking heads and treating as necessary. A vitally important part of preventing school wide infestations is to educate staff, parents and students about other forms of prevention. In their presentation to their school council, Boase and Frey recommended that coat hooks be a certain distance apart so as to prevent the spread of lice from one person’s outerwear to another. Although the Board does recommend a 12 inch distance, Boase does not believe that this relieves the problem due to coats that hang over one another. As an alternative, Boase and Frey suggested that students in classrooms in which 2 or more of their peers have been identified as having head lice, be provided with garbage bags with pull ties. Each student then bags his or her outerwear for a period of two weeks. This suggestion was put into action and some students and teachers have chosen to bag outerwear all year round.

In keeping with their supportive approach and in an effort to encourage parents to share their findings with others, the fund raising committee at Wells St. Public School also provides the family of the student with a lice kit. This includes a lice meister comb, a treatment shampoo and an information package. The comb, the best that is available to remove lice and nits, is put out and endorsed by the National Pediculosis Asocation. Unfortunately, the shampoos are not always effective. So, in a further attempt to help parents, additional funding, at the Principals’s discretion, may be available to parents so that they can employ outside support to help remove lice and nits expediently.

Lice Busters: Canada’s Holistic Help for Head Lice, is who the parents gonna call when they realize, in a panic stricken state, that they are marching against time in an attempt to get rid of the lice and nits before more are laid in their child’s, and often their own hair. Magnifying visors on their head, tweezers, combs, a specially formulated herbal treatment and other paraphernalia at hand, these are the real experts. These are the empathic, oh so patient and good sense of humoured people that make up the Lice Busters team. Karen Tilley, daughter of the well known clothier, Alex Tilley, founded Lice Busters in 1997. In her case, necessity was the mother of invention. After contracting lice from her son in 1991 and asking other mothers to help her out, they began a reciprocal nit picking arrangement until she turned it into a business venture. After living in Canada for most of her life, she has recently moved to the States to continue helping those in need. Dawn Mucci, General Manager, is left to manage Lice Busters in Canada. She says that along with services such as head checks in schools and day cares, seminars, a free hotline and internet service and an in home nit removal service, they offer lice kits and individual products. Dawn boasts a very interesting collection of lice removal combs (most of them useless, she says) that she has collected over the years.

With the recognition that head lice have become resistant to over the counter shampoos containing pesticides such as Permethrin. Lice Busters has formulated (and reformulated as lice become resistant again) a blend of essential oils (from plants). Lice Goodbye contains ingredients such as eucalyptus, tea tree and geranium. Not only do they recognize that lice have become resistant to certain shampoos, they work hard at educating the public about “the health risks of repeatedly exposing children to pestidices” as when the shampoo is applied to their heads.. According to information recorded in Tilley’s booklet, “since 1944, over 1400 reports of adverse health reactions have been filed with the National Pediculosis Association (in Massachusetts, U.S.A)., detailing the use and abuse of pesticides for killing head lice and scabies. The 1400 reports include such serious health effects as leukemia, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, cancer, epilepsy , death” and much more.

Tilley also writes that “head lice infestations are an epidemic in Canada and the U.S. In the United States and Canada, head lice is the second most communicable infliction among children after the common cold” In a section regarding re-infestations in schools, some of the suggestions include encouraging female students to keep their hair tied back or in tight braids, all students to avoid hair to hair contact (lice cannot jump or fly but can crawl from hair to hair), to “keep coats and hats in duffel bags or big plastic bags instead of letting them touch each other and to keep hats inside coat sleeves.” Furthermore, she recommends that each parent have a lice meister comb and check their children’s hair on a weekly basis.

Since 1997 Tilley’s company has helped more than 7,000 families treat their lice problem. Better yet, Lice Busters helps to educate parents, school personnel and students how to prevent lice infestations. Mucci says that they encourage schools to adopt a no nit policy, and for parents to become involved by forming lice committees so that they might uphold the policy, become head checkers and provide other parents with the right tools and information.

Although this is not a lice topic to talk about, we must. It is time for parents to speak up without fear of their children being stigmatized and for schools to take a greater stand. Together, we can end this lousy battle.