Beginning of school bound to bring head lice problems

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 26, 2009

I mentioned in last week’s column that an Extension Service client brought in a sandwich bag containing head lice that had been combed from the hair of a couple of young girls. That incident, along with the fact that we are a couple of weeks away from the beginning of school have prompted me to focus this week’s column on head lice.

If you go

The Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District’s annual dinner will be at 7 p.m. Aug. 6 at Hinds Community College’s Vicksburg campus. The featured speaker will be Mark Beason, editor of Mississippi Outdoors magazine. Tickets are $30 per couple, and must be purchased by Friday. Call 601-636-7679.

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Often at the beginning of the school year, a child gets sent home with a note that the child has head lice. This news generally creates its own special kind of family excitement and raises a lot of questions. How did she get them? Could the rest of the family have them? How do we get rid of them?

People become infested with head lice when they come in close personal contact with someone who already has lice or when they use an item, such as a comb, hat or coat, that was recently worn or used by an infested person. Infestations can rarely occur due to a louse crawling from the coat or hat of an infested person to another hanging nearby and then onto the head of the new host. When a louse falls off a human head, it wants nothing more than to get back on a human head as quickly as possible. This is why infestations are more common among school children. They are more likely to come into close contact with one another while playing.

If you do happen to get one of those notes from the school, don’t feel as though there is great shame in having head lice. In “To a Louse,” the Scottish poet Robert Burns says head lice do not observe social boundaries. They are just as happy on the head of a “fine lady” as they are on a beggar.

In other words, having head lice is not an indication of poor personal hygiene or sloppy housekeeping. The lice don’t care whether you wash your hair once a day, once a month or never. They don’t care whether your house is filthy or immaculately clean. All that really matters to the lice is that you have warm blood on which to feed and you have hair. Head lice do have some preferences, however: Blacks are rarely infested; children are infested more often than adults; and girls are infested more often than boys. Head lice live only on people, not on pets, birds or other animals. And, they prefer to stay on the head and rarely are seen on other parts of the body unless overcrowding occurs.

Two methods of controlling lice are physical removal and treatment with an approved insecticide. A combination of the two will greatly improve the odds for success. The most effective over-the-counter treatments contain permethrin or pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide. Pharmacies also sell combs for the physical removal of live lice and lice eggs, which are called nits. Instructions with the combs and the insecticides must be followed carefully to insure effectiveness and personal safety. It is advisable to seek the advice of a physician.

John C. Coccaro is county Extension director. Write to him at 1100-C Grove St., Vicksburg, MS 39180 or call 601-636-5442. E-mail him at