After a letter came home about a lice outbreak at the girls’ school, I immediately went to check them out. I stood in the elementary school office checking my girls’ hair, and sure enough, there were little crawling lice and eggs staring back at me. I embarrassingly and mortifyingly looked at the secretary and gave her “The Nod.”
As it turns out, it was a family affair; all six of us had lice! That includes my four daughters (even our 3 month old) and my 45-year-old physician husband. How could this happen to us?! I thought we were so clean! Of course as a pediatrician I knew it wasn’t because we weren’t clean, but as a mom I felt dirty and ashamed. As a mother, my battle with lice ensued, and it oddly, it was more empowering than I thought it would be. We faced it head on. (No pun intended!)
Oh no. We’re now a statistic.
Most people are ashamed of lice. But let’s face it, lice is highly contagious and it shouldn’t be taboo. Did you know that between six and 12 million American children between 3 and 11 years old get lice each year? My family just became part of that statistic. Eeeeew gross! But honestly, it can happen to anyone.
It’s critically important to be open, transparent and educated about all contagious diseases. With lice, it’s not a reflection of cleanliness but rather just how contagious lice is.
As a mom and a pediatrician, my public service announcement is: Please let your school, friends and contacts know if you have something contagious. It will help decrease the spread of the disease and save health, time and money!
The first step was knowing it was going around; it is fiercely going around in schools right now. The second step was accepting it, facing it, not being ashamed of it and treating it. The third step was very important: We had to tell everyone we had it — brave, I know — but extremely important. So off went the emails and texts advertising our family had head lice and anyone who had contact with us should get checked.
A little about lice
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), infestation with head lice is most common among preschool- and elementary school-age children, and their household members and caretakers. However, we are now seeing it in high schools and other places.
Head lice are mainly spread by direct contact with the hair of an infested person. The most common way to get lice is through head-to-head contact with a person who already has it. Some studies suggest that girls get head lice more often than boys, probably due to more frequent head-to-head contact. Common ways to get lice include:
- playing with others at school or home.
- activities where your child interacts with others (e.g., sports, playgrounds, camp, slumber parties, etc.).
- wearing clothing (e.g., hats, scarves, coats, sports uniforms, hair ribbons, etc.) worn by an infested person.
- using infested combs, brushes or towels.
- lying on a bed, couch, pillow, carpet or stuffed animal that has recently been in contact with an infested person.
Head lice are not known to transmit disease; however, secondary bacterial infection of the skin resulting from scratching can occur with any lice infestation.
Preventing and controlling the problem
Here are some simple things you can do to help prevent and control the spread of head lice.
- Avoid head-to-head (hair-to-hair) contact during play and other activities.
- Do not share clothing (including hats, scarves, coats) or things worn in the hair.
- Do not share combs, brushes or towels. Disinfect combs and brushes by soaking them in hot water (at least 130° F) for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Do not lie on soft objects that have recently been in contact with an infested person.
- Wash things that an infested person wore or used for the two days before treatment. Simply machine wash and dry them using the hot water (130° F) laundry cycle and the high heat drying cycle. Clothing and items that aren’t washable can be dry cleaned or sealed in a plastic bag and stored for two weeks.
- Vacuum the floor and furniture, particularly where the infested person sat or lay. Spending a lot of time and money on housecleaning isn’t necessary to avoid reinfestation by lice or nits that may have fallen off the head or crawled onto furniture or clothing.
- Do not use fumigant sprays or fogs. They aren’t necessary to control head lice and can be toxic if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
- To help control a head lice outbreak in a community, school or camp, teach your children how to avoid activities that may spread head lice.
Lice is not difficult to identify and there are many options for treatments out there. Talk to your pediatrician about different options for diagnoses and treatment. My family went to a local delousing boutique that kindly got rid of our little friends for us.
We are officially the cleanest, most lice-free family in our community now. As for you, stop itching (I know reading about it can bring on the itchiness!) and go make sure you don’t have it, too.
– Dr. Hannan Alsahlani is a Beaumont pediatrician and proud mother of four officially lice-free girls (Sophia 9, Summer 8, Serene 2, and Solei 4 months).