Head scratcher: Lice cases up

Spring fever has many Minnesotans itching to get outside. But that's not all that may have them itching - head lice could also be to blame. According to Melissa Bright, Alexandria School District 206 nurse, the number of head lice cases among stu...

Spring fever has many Minnesotans itching to get outside. But that's not all that may have them itching - head lice could also be to blame.

According to Melissa Bright, Alexandria School District 206 nurse, the number of head lice cases among students seems to be higher this year than normal.

Bright noted that head lice are actually very common - second only to the common cold among children ages 3 to 12.

"We see cases within the district every year," she said, "so this isn't abnormal. We are definitely seeing an increased number this year, but it's not just our community. There have been cases reported statewide."

Bright noted that it is unknown exactly why cases are up this year, but efforts have been under way since fall to try to keep outbreaks under control in local schools.


"We sent a district-wide letter out in October asking parents to check their children for lice," she said. "It hasn't been routine in the past to send letters when cases of lice are reported, because it is considered a nuisance issue. Lice do not carry any diseases and are not a danger.

"We don't send letters home when students get sick with the common cold, and this is a similar type of thing," she added.

Bright did note that the district is working to create new guidelines on how to keep parents informed and better educated about head lice. Besides the letters sent to all families last fall, letters have also been sent to the parents of children in classrooms that had cases reported.

Most cases of head lice in students are actually found at home by parents, but if a teacher sees signs in the classroom - such as a significant itching of the head - students may be sent to the nurse to be checked.

If lice are found, the parents are called and are educated on how to deal with the problem.

"By the time an active case of live lice are found, it is likely that the student has had them for a couple of weeks already," Bright explained.

"One of the main points we are trying to get across to parents is that it is important to check your child regularly throughout the school year so we can prevent outbreaks and keep kids in the classrooms learning."

Besides trying to educate parents, School District 206 has been working to educate staff. Custodial staff members perform some additional cleaning duties in classrooms where cases of active lice have been reported. Teachers have been educated on what to watch for and environmental scans are performed in classrooms.


Bright noted that all of these efforts will help slow the spread of lice, but that awareness is most important.

"This isn't just a school problem," she said. "Outbreaks tend to occur wherever kids gather - in the community, at church, everywhere. That creates challenges in monitoring and dealing with them."

District officials believe it is likely there are currently as many or more unreported cases as there are reported cases of lice.

"We don't want to create a panic," Bright stressed. "This isn't anything new - we have confirmed cases of lice each year. We just want to make people aware and to educate them and encourage them to keep checking all year at home."

She added that it is not a good idea to treat someone for lice unless they actually have a confirmed infestation, as many of the treatments can be toxic with overuse.

"Combing and being diligent is the biggest piece in this," Bright said. "Often people think they got rid of the lice and then later think they caught them again. That usually is not the case. It is more likely that some nits got missed and were there the whole time."

If parents find lice or nits on their child, they are encouraged to report it to their school so the cases can be monitored.

Bright noted that some parents are hesitant to do this, as there is often a stigma associated with head lice.


"We keep all cases confidential," she said, adding that head lice are not a result of lack of good hygiene and are nothing to be ashamed of.

"They can infect anyone," she said.


Head lice are small (less than 1/8th of an inch), brown or gray insects the size of a sesame seed that live and feed on the human scalp.

The eggs, called nits, are clear, white, cream or dark ovals adhered to the hair shaft with a glue-like substance. They usually hatch within two weeks. Nits are easier to detect than lice, which move quickly to avoid exposure to light.

Symptoms include frequent itching of the head and neck.

Lice are spread by head-to-head contact and by sharing personal items such as combs, barrettes, hats, jackets, sheets, pillowcases, etc. Lice do not spread to and from pets.

Lice do not fly or jump but can crawl or fall off the head. They typically only live 48 hours off the scalp and will only lay eggs while on the head.

A person is considered contagious until treated with a lice treatment product.


Use an over-the-counter or prescription medicated product and closely follow the product directions (directions vary from product to product).

It may take 24 hours for products to kill lice. Some products require a second treatment seven to 10 days later to kill any lice that may have hatched after the first treatment.

Products are not 100 percent effective in killing lice, especially nits. Removing the nits is an essential part of the treatment. To remove, use a metal nit comb or fingernails to slide eggs off hair shafts.

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