Back-to-school signs are everywhere: the return of school buses, the smell of freshly sharpened pencils and the misery of head lice.
"More than 12 million people, mostly children, parents and school personnel, get head lice each year," said Paul Guillebeau, Integrated Pest Management coordinator for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
"Head lice are common among all classes of people, Guillebeau said. "They know no socioeconomic or ethnic boundaries."
As part of his efforts to reduce unnecessary use of pesticides, Guillebeau and colleague Gretchen Van De Mark have released updated information on how to treat head lice.
The two publications, "A Parent's Guide to the 'Nitty Gritty' About Head Lice" and "A School's Guide to the 'Nitty Gritty' About Head Lice," are being distributed to Georgia school systems. They're available on the web at http://entom ology.ent.uga.edu/online_pubs.htm.
"Many parents panic when they discover their child has head lice and misuse pesticides or resort to unapproved treatments like kerosene," Guillebeau said.
"Head lice are not an emergency," he said. "They don't pose any health risks. But misusing pesticides or spraying pesticides unnecessarily does put your child and your family at risk."
Head lice are simply inconveniences to be dealt with compassionately and calmly, Guillebeau said.
Knowing a little head lice biology is the key to convincing parents not to overreact and spray pesticides unneccessarily.
Head lice can't live off a human host for more than 24 hours. They can't reproduce in carpets, bedding or other home furnishings. And they can't live on pets or stuffed toys.
"Pesticide sprays do little or nothing to control lice," Guillebeau said, "but they do expose your family to pesticides unnecessarily. Never treat your home, car, furniture, beds, pillows or clothing with pesticides in an attempt to control head lice."
To kill head lice on bedding and clothes, wash and dry them as you would ordinarily. To kill head lice on brushes, combs and hair accessories, wash them with hot, soapy water. For peace of mind, place stuffed animals that can't be washed in a sealed plastic bag for three to four days.
Guillebeau says he cringes when he hears stories of school personnel spraying pesticides in classrooms and on buses to control head lice.
"If your child's school does this, ask them to stop immediately," Guillebeau said. "These applications don't help control head lice populations. They just expose the children and staff to needless pesticide risks."
The University of Georgia, National Pest Control Association, National Pediculosis Association and the Georgia Pest Control Association all support this recommendation for schools.
Head lice are transmitted by direct head-to-head contact with an infested person or by sharing hats, scarves, headphones, combs and other hair accessories. They can't hop, jump or fly. But they can crawl fast.
"Teachers and other school personnel should discourage children from sharing these items," Guillebeau said. "And each child's hat and coat should be stored separately."
Guillebeau said if school bus drivers are concerned over head lice, they can wipe the bus seats with a damp cloth. Teachers and school custodians can also wipe smooth surfaces with a damp cloth and vacuum furniture and carpets if they're concerned about head lice.
To treat your child for head lice, just follow Guillebeau's ten tips.
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)