This week the nation's pediatricians let loose a bit of news that could transform the lives of parents: They said head lice are OK. Any parent who has had to deal with a school's no-nit policy has experienced firsthand the frustration of keeping a perfectly healthy child home from school because that child's shiny clean hair harbors a few nits; the child isn't learning, the parent isn't earning. But don't be surprised if your school continues to send children home for lice.
Many schools have adopted a no-nit policy as the simplest way to manage head lice outbreaks, which are commonplace, affecting 6 to 12 million children a year. But the American Academy of Pediatrics took another look at the science, and said there's no evidence that head lice pose a disease risk, or are a sign of bad hygiene. What's more, they say there's no evidence that sending a child home reduces the spread of lice, or that in-school screenings can control outbreaks. So this week the AAP revised its policy, saying schools shouldn't send home children with lice or nits (louse eggs). I called my local school district to see if they were thinking of revising their send-'em-home policy, and was told that mine was the first call they'd gotten on that question.
A quick scan of newspapers around the country finds that though some schools have started to relax their lice bans in recent years, many schools continue to have a no-nit policy, and there's great variation even within states. In Vermont, for instance, some schools ban and some don't, with pitched battles each year between parents who want kids in school, and parents who are grossed out by lice. Expect much more confusion this fall; lice infestations typically start becoming common in October, and many school districts won't have had time to rethink their policies.
In the meantime, here's a start on a safe yet sane family lice policy, based on the new AAP recommendations:
- Check your child's head before and after sleepovers and sleep-away camps. Lice are usually spread by head-to-head contact, and researchers think that many kids pick up lice during the summer. It can take a month or more for an infestation to make a head itch.
- If you find lice, the recommended chemical treatment is a 1 percent lotion of permethrin, a pesticide, with a second application a week to 10 days after the first.
- The best non-toxic alternative is picking out lice and nits by hand. Wet-combing hair with a very fine comb might do the trick, and there's some evidence that putting the facial cleanser Cetaphil on hair and leaving it in overnight may suffocate lice.
- Since some treatments are toxic, and some have become less effective as lice develop resistance, it wouldn't be a bad idea to ask your pediatrician for recommendations, particularly if your family has suffered multiple infestations.
- Wash bedding or dry it in the dryer for 10 minutes, but don't feel like you have to scrub the house. The items most in need of cleaning are those that have touched the person's head in the past 48 hours, since lice can't live for more than a day away from a warm human.
I don't like lice, but I hate having children home from school even more. I'm hoping the new policy will get traction in schools this year, even if it means a few more itchy heads.