|Posted on December 6, 2008 at 3:50 PM|
Last Wednesday, some Rieke Elementary parents got an unwelcome letter. The principal of the Southwest Portland school, Charlene Russell, wrote, "Recently we have had an increase in the number of cases of head lice" in one classroom.
I have friends with kids at Rieke, and I can just imagine their anxiety. What does a parent do? With the help of Catherine Kittams, a nurse consultant for Multnomah Educational Service District, and Sherry Hanson, owner of Nit Picky, a local lice-removal house-call service, here are some questions and answers about lice.
• Head lice are tiny insects about the size of a sesame seed that live on the heads of humans. They affect only humans and cannot be picked up from animals.
• Head lice do not carry or cause infections. They are not considered a public health threat or a medical problem and therefore outbreaks and infestations are not reported officially. Because of this, there are no reliable statistics on outbreaks or infestations.
• Head lice cannot jump, hop or fly. They can only crawl.
• Head lice have been around for thousands of years -- dry lice and eggs
have been found on the scalps of Egyptian mummies.
Q: How do kids get lice?
A: Kittams says head lice are most often spread by direct head-to-head contact. So the best way to guard against lice is to teach your child to avoid such contact and regularly check your child's head for signs of lice.
Kids can also pick up lice by sharing personal items or by lying on a bed, couch, carpet or pillow that was recently used by an infested person. Kittams says parents should teach kids not to share clothing, towels, combs, brushes or hair ornaments. Hanson warns against sharing hats and hooded coats, too.
Kittams adds that although schools are often tagged as breeding grounds for lice, head lice are no more common in schools than anywhere else. Children are much more likely to come in contact with head lice outside school -- for example, at sleepovers, sports activities or camp, all situations in which they have closer physical contact.
Q: What happens if there's a lice outbreak at my child's school?
A: "Each district has its own policies for managing head lice, and because it is not a disease or illness, no quarantine is necessary," Kittams says. "In most districts students with live head lice are sent home with instructions for treatment. Students with nits (eggs) but no live lice are allowed to attend school."
Q: Does it help to cut my kids' hair really short?
A: Kittams says it's more important to focus on avoiding head-to-head contact. Hanson recommends buzz cuts for boys and braids for girls, but says that "the magic is in manually removing (lice and nits) and combing and combing and combing."
Q: What products do you recommend for getting rid of lice?
A: "There is not a magic bullet for treatment," Kittams says, and she recommends against using lice-prevention shampoos.
Hanson says she tried commercial products such as RID and Nix but the lice just came back. So she now uses this procedure for her clients:
• First she sprays the hair with a mint spray. "If it comes in direct contact with the lice, it will kill it," she says. "It's an enzyme-based product, so it eats at the (lice's) exoskeleton."
• Then she combs for lice and nits. The combs sold at retailers, she says, are not effective -- "their teeth are spaced too far apart and you can comb right past the lice or the egg." She uses a special comb with microgrooved teeth to grab lice and pull the nits away from the hair shafts. She then removes the nits by hand.
• She continually dips the comb in a bowl of water. Relying on just her eyes isn't enough, she says. "The water tells the truth ... whatever comes out of that hair is gonna be floating in the water." Combing out one person can take anywhere from one to four hours. "It depends upon the length of the hair, the thickness of the hair, the level of the infestation," Hanson says. She charges $65 an hour.
• After the treatment, Hanson recommends that parents continue combing out their children's hair for at least four weeks.
Q: If certain people would just bathe their kids more often, we probably wouldn't have a lice problem, would we?
A: "Getting head lice has nothing to do with cleanliness or poor
hygiene. It has nothing to do with race or economic status," Kittams says.
For more information about lice, including how to deal with an infested child's bedding and toys, see this fact sheet from the Oregon Department of Human Services.
- Amy Wang; firstname.lastname@example.org
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