What Teachers Need to Know about Head Lice

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Our school nurse offers advice on dealing with a common winter woe.

By Michele Faehnle RN, BSN

Head lice is a common problem in children. I know from experience that if word gets out that a student has lice, panic can ensue in the classroom! The thought of little bugs and eggs in your hair can make your skin crawl. I imagine just reading the title of this article made your head itch.

Lice typically affects kids ages 3 to 11, but anyone can get lice. There are many misconceptions about head lice, but you do not need to be afraid. Lice, although a nuisance, are not dangerous and they do not carry disease. Below are some frequently asked questions about lice.

What are lice and nits?

Lice are wingless bugs that live near the scalp and feed on human blood. They do not fly and are mainly spread through direct head-to-head contact. Lice can infrequently be spread through indirect contact such as shared hats, combs, and hair ties. Nits are the tiny little eggs that lice lay on the hair shaft and the shell that is left over after the eggs hatch. Nits are very small and can be difficult to see with the naked eye. They may look like tiny flakes of dandruff, but are firmly attached to the hair with a waterproof “glue.” (Dandruff can easily be removed by simply brushing or wiping the hair; nits cannot.) Once hatched, a grayish-white bug called a nymph lives and crawls on the head. These are tiny little bugs become adult lice and can live for up to 30 days on the scalp. If the louse is off a human head, it can only live one or two days.

Who can get lice?

There are many misconceptions about the spread of lice and cleanliness. Socioeconomic status and cleanliness of the home or hair does not matter. Another myth is that that lice do not like clean hair (or hair with product in it). I have heard stories of teachers and day care workers who would not washing their hair in hopes to prevent getting lice; however this is not true! Lice are indiscriminate. Clean or dirty, lice just need human hair.

How do I know if it’s lice?

If you see a student constantly scratching their head or complaining of tingling and itchy scalp, send them to the school nurse. If you do not have a school nurse, contact the parent and request they get checked by their pediatrician.

What should I do if there is a case of head lice in my classroom?

Do not panic! The National Association of School Nurses does not recommend students be excluded for lice or nits.  Many schools used to have “no nit” policies, and students would have prolonged absences from classes. Since lice are not dangerous or disease-carrying, the current recommendation is that students who have lice may stay in school and a notification should be sent home at the end of the day. The students should contact their pediatrician for treatment options. Follow your school policy on when the student may return to school.

Does my classroom need to be cleaned in a special way to get rid of lice?

If you have machine washable things such as blankets or towels, wash in hot, soapy water then dry. Use the hot cycle of a dryer for at least 20 minutes. Ask the janitorial staff to vacuum the carpet and any furniture. Place stuffed animals, pillows, or other things you cannot wash in a plastic bag for three days. Any lice will die within one to two days. To learn more, visit NationwideChildrens.org/Conditions/head-lice.

Can I prevent head lice?

If you have a head lice problem in your classroom, encourage students to avoid head- to head-contact (like taking selfies with friends). Teach students “Never Share What Touches the Hair” and avoid sharing hats, scarves, hairbrushes, scrunchies, and hair clips. If jackets and backpacks are kept in a common area, you may consider separating them or having the students place them in plastic bags before hanging on hooks. 

If you are concerned about getting lice yourself, pulling your hair up is also not a bad idea if you have very long hair. I have found myself leaning over students to help them wash their hands and realized my hair was resting on their head!

Although limited research has been done on over-the-counter shampoos and conditioners claim to repel lice, some studies that have looked at plant oils such as rosemary, citronella, eucalyptus, tea tree and lemongrass show that these may be effective. However, these natural products are unregulated by the FDA.

Although the thought of having head lice in the classroom may seem stressful, it is important to remember that they will not harm you. In understanding the latest evidence based research we can keep students in school, maintain their privacy and dispel myths about the spread of lice.

Michele Faehnle, RN, BSN, is the school nurse at St. Andrew School, Columbus, Ohio, and co-author of four books. Pray Fully is her latest book.

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