With school back in session, there is no doubt that parents are being inundated with messages of head lice prevention and treatment. But what no one seems to talk about — and what every child and family realizes when affected by head lice — is the social stigma that comes with it.
Of those who have been (un)lucky enough to experience head lice, it’s almost a guarantee that thoughts and feelings of guilt, shame and disgust came with it. How does one overcome the social stigma of head lice? Where can families turn for advice? Most importantly, how can parents help their children understand that there is no need to feel unclean if affected by head lice?
Dr. Gordon Cheng, a pediatrician with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, offers his insight on the matter. “Oftentimes, a child with head lice may have feelings of shame, anxiety and isolation. It’s important to emphasize to children that anyone can get head lice. It’s no different from someone catching a cold.”
While these tiny bugs tend to make a major appearance among preschool- and elementary-aged children, Dr. Cheng stresses, “No one is immune.” If a child gets it, then the family of that child should also get checked for head lice as a precaution.
Overcoming the social stigma
Does this mean, however, that the people who have head lice should lock themselves away until the coast is clear? The answer is a resounding no.
While many schools maintain “no-nit” policies, the American Academy of Pediatrics and National Association of School Nurses advocate for abandoning this practice, as it places unnecessary stress and strain on the child and caregivers.
Children who are identified as having head lice can finish the school day, get treated at home and return the following day.
Part of overcoming the stigma involves open discussion and education as well. The National Association of School Nurses points to health education — focused on dispelling head lice myths, modes of transmission and regular screenings at home.
Dr. Cheng agrees, “Lice are a nuisance, yes. But they do not cause any type of serious illness or disease. As a parent, be open to discussing with your child that the best way to avoid getting lice is not to share personal items such as combs, hair brushes and hats.”
Treating head lice
In the unfortunate event that a child gets head lice, parents should consult with the child’s pediatrician on the treatments he or she feels is best, and keep these four tips in mind:
- Go through the hair by hand and remove lice and nits after applying topical treatment.
“The most reliable way to treat head lice is by doing a manual removal process of nits after a treatment has been used, whether over-the-counter or prescription,” says Dr. Cheng.
- Follow treatment directions.
That may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning. Different treatments come with different directions, so read them thoroughly to ensure they are being used safely.
- Choose sink over shower.
When washing the medication out of a child’s hair, opt to do this over the sink. This will reduce the risk of medication running onto other areas of the skin. “Wash with warm water rather than hot water. This also reduces skin absorption of the medicine,” says Dr. Cheng.
- Avoid home remedies.
“The safety and efficacy of alternative therapies such as essential oils and occlusive agents — petroleum jelly or herbal oils — are not regulated by the FDA,” explains Dr. Cheng.
As parents make their way deeper into the school year, it’s important to be vigilant at home and conduct regular checks for head lice.