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Parents, schools can combat head lice naturally

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

Even Paul Guillebeau scratches his head when talking about head lice. The tiny creatures are his focus, especially when it comes to reducing students’ exposure to pesticides associated with the insect’s control.

Guillebeau is an Extension entomologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. He and his colleague, Gretchen Pettis, are preparing for the onslaught of calls they’ll receive as soon as children across the state return to school.

“Something like 15 million people get head lice each year,” said Guillebeau, who also serves as the college’s integrated pest management coordinator. “Additionally, there are numerous reports of head lice populations that are resistant to commonly available head lice shampoos.”

It doesn’t matter what kind of socio-economic background or ethnicity a person has. Head lice aren’t selective when it comes to choosing a new host. But the negative connotation is still there.

Guillebeau recalls one instance in particular. A mother called him because she said her children had head lice and the infestation was so bad “they were jumping off the cabinet.”

He replied that head lice can’t jump, hop or fly. They can, however, crawl.

This particular desperate mother had tried everything she could think of to get rid of the head lice. But they kept coming back. It turns out that her sister’s children had head lice, and her sister wouldn’t admit it so the children were being reinfested each time they played with their cousins.

“The perception is always hard to overcome,” Pettis said. “Just because a child has head lice doesn’t mean that the child or the school is unclean.”

The danger of a head lice outbreak isn’t the insect itself, because it doesn’t transmit diseases or cause illness. It’s the way schools and parents try to combat head lice.

“The health risk is people doing foolish things with pesticides,” Guillebeau said.

Pesticide sprays do little or nothing to control lice, a point Guillebeau and Pettis make in the head lice publications, “A Parent’s Guide to the ‘Nitty Gritty’ about Head Lice” and “A School’s Guide to the ‘Nitty Gritty’ about Head Lice.” The pamphlets are both available on the Web at http://entomology.ent.uga.edu/online_pubs.htm.

The best way for school officials to combat an outbreak is to clean items like headphones and other objects that touch a student’s head. Students’ jackets, hats and scarves should also be stored separately.

Guillebeau and Pettis also encourage early intervention by identifying children who have an infestation and notifying their parent or guardian.

Head lice can’t form colonies in carpet or anywhere else in a home, Guillebeau said. They require a human host to spread an infestation and can “live off the body no more than a day or two.”

Unlabeled treatments, such as kerosene and yard chemicals, applied to a child’s head can be dangerous. And medicated head lice shampoos won’t kill all the eggs, known as nits, Pettis said.

The only way to get rid of head lice completely is with a combination of the shampoos and manual removal. To remove the nits, a parent or guardian must comb through each section of a child’s hair from the root all the way to the tip.

“The quality of a nit comb makes a big difference,” Guillebeau said. “The best are made out of steel. Inexpensive plastic combs are just not as good.”

When parents use a nit comb, Pettis said it’s best to dip the comb in warm, soapy water after each sweep through the child’s hair.

“The biggest take-home message to parents is to encourage schools not to spray pesticides,” she said. “Sprays expose children to unnecessary risks and aren’t effective for head lice management. And always use a nit comb. It’s an essential part of lice removal.”

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)

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