It’s the dreaded phone call that no parent wants to receive from their child’s school nurse – your child has head lice. Immediately panic starts to set in and feelings of denial, horror, embarrassment, anger, and despair quickly follow. Parents begin to wonder: How did my child get head lice? Will it spread to the rest of my family? Is our entire house infested? What will others think? Lice can unexpectedly crash into your life and turn your whole world upside down.
Facing a head lice infestation can be downright traumatizing, especially for parents. While there is a lot of information out there about how to deal with head lice effectively, some of it is good, but much of it is grounded in myths that drown out the best advice. As the executive director of the American School Health Association, even I fell victim to the noise that many parents hear when dealing with lice. As a recent survivor of head lice, I hope the information shared below will encourage other parents to be open about their battle against head lice, and ultimately help ease the journey for other parents down the road.
The Stigma of Head Lice
The social stigma associated with head lice continues to be perceived as a major barrier to reducing its spread. Stigma results in children being teased, isolated during lunch time, and made to feel dirty once news that they have contracted head lice circulates. They may also miss valuable time in school due to controversial no-nit policies.
Parents, on the other hand, will go to great lengths to keep secret that head lice has hit their household, traveling miles outside of their way to seek treatment. Both parents and children may feel ostracized as a result of the myths and negative social stigma that surround the condition.
To help dispel the most common myths that contribute to the head lice stigma and help parents deal with these pesky parasites quickly and effectively, I’ve enlisted head lice expert, Dr. Shirley Gordon. Dr. Gordon has devoted much of her research to examining conditions like head lice that contribute to social stigma. According to Dr. Gordon, below are a few of the most common stigma-causing myths that parents should be aware of when navigating the battlefield against head lice.
Equal Opportunity Condition
Head lice is an equal opportunity condition that can affect anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status – yet so many myths continue to surround head lice. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), head lice impacts an estimated 6 to 12 million children ages 3-11 each year. The CDC also lists head lice as one of the most common childhood diseases, alongside ear infections, chickenpox, and measles. However, unlike other common childhood diseases, head lice is typically not reported to a health care professional, making it more difficult to track and treat effectively.
Health, Not Hygiene
A widespread misconception is that head lice infestations are associated with poor hygiene or unclean living conditions. Contrary to this popular belief, it does not matter if the hair is clean, dirty, long, or short. Moreover, while an itchy scalp is a common symptom, if someone is infested for the first time, it may take up to 4-6 weeks for this warning sign to surface. Keep in mind, not everyone with a head lice infestation will develop itching.
Head Lice Don’t Jump
Head lice move from one person to another by crawling and cannot jump or fly. The condition is usually spread from direct head-to-head contact, not from sharing brushes, hats, or bedding (although these are possible). Children tend to contract head lice at school, camp, daycare, slumber parties, and sports activities, among others, which can contribute to how quickly the condition may spread within a community. However, it is important to note that anyone who comes into head-to-head contact with someone who has head lice is at risk for an infestation. Therefore, it can be commonly transmitted within families.
So what should you do if you find yourself in a battle against head lice? Speaking personally as a parent who has overcome this obstacle and Dr. Gordon speaking as a nurse who has counseled countless parents on how to overcome infestation, we know that you can get through this seemingly impossible challenge of ridding your loved ones and homes of these pests. Our best advice is as follows:
Keep Calm and Contact Your Health Care Provider
At the first signs of head lice, parents should consider contacting a health care professional who is equipped to provide accurate, effective information about the condition and available treatment options.
After confirming the diagnosis of an active infestation and completing the recommended treatment, take proper precautions to clean personal items such as bedding or clothing and hair accessories worn during infestation to reduce the risk of reinfestation. Head lice do not infest homes, so you don’t need to spend a lot of time or money cleaning your house, but it is a key element of a thorough lice management plan.
Stomp out Stigma
Remember, a head lice infestation is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. You are not alone, and chances are high that someone you know has also encountered head lice. Help to break the stigma associated with the condition by speaking up and sharing your story with other parents in your community. Together, we can debunk the myths, fight the stigma, and effectively combat head lice.