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Myths and Misconceptions About Head Lice

by Mohsin Malik

Even in the information age, common myths and misconceptions about head lice persist in many communities. Some of these myths cause undue anxiety, as people worry about such things as hygiene’s role in lice infestations, how lice spreads in school and daycare environments, and how lice can be prevented and treated.

So what are the facts behind these mainstreamed myths about head lice?

Lice Infestations are a New Phenomenon

Read any mom blog or social media mom group, and you will find parents complaining about the prevalence of lice infestations in today’s schools and daycares. Many parents site the fact that these infestations were rare when they went to school, yet today parents tend to get notes sent home from school several times a year suggesting head checks be performed because children in the school have been found to have contracted lice.

The truth is, lice have been the unwanted companions of humans since the first humans lived in caves. Fine-toothed combs recovered from Egyptian tombs have revealed remains of head lice in all stages, proving not only that lice plagued even the Pharaohs, but that fine combing has always been an important method of treatment. The oldest evidence of head lice was recovered from 10,000-year-old hair recovered from an archeological site in Brazil.

While it’s clearly a myth that lice is a new phenomenon, there is some truth to the fact that it has become more of a problem in recent decades due to growing resistance to the common pesticides used to treat them. Because strains of lice known as “super lice” have evolved to be resistant to common treatments, populations are seeing increased instances of infestations that are more difficult to eradicate.

Fortunately, both new and popular brands have responded with different treatment options, including some of the best lice treatments available which now contain highly effective natural botanical ingredients to kill lice and loosen their eggs for removal, or ingredients meant to kill lice through smothering methods rather than with pesticides.

Those with Poor Hygiene Spread Lice

This is probably the longest-running myth, and often the most misleading and potentially hurtful misconception. When lice infestations make their way around classrooms, you will almost always find some parents trying to find out which child brought it into the school environment. Because of the long-held misconception about lice and hygiene, contracting lice can still feel shameful and stigmatizing for children, when the truth is that lice is something a child catches just like the common cold. Lice are in the environment searching for a human host in order to survive. If one female finds its way onto a head, it can begin an entire colony and then easily spread to others in a close environment just like a virus.

Lice require a human host for survival and like all creatures, they do their best to survive and thrive, and unfortunately that means they are likely to remain a problem for humans indefinitely.

Lice are Nit-Picky and Prefer Clean Hair

While it isn’t true that lice are more likely to infest those with poor hygiene, it’s also a myth that lice prefer clean hair. While you will hear this misconception repeated to children in schools because it helps to de-stigmatize any child with lice, the truth is that lice require a human head to survive, and they aren’t picky about the cleanliness of the hair. No studies have shown that lice prefer clean hair to dirty hair. 

There is, however, some evidence to show that lice prefer longer or thicker hair, to those with very short hair. This is likely because it’s easier for them to hide in longer, thicker hair. However, having short hair doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you won’t get lice. Though they might prefer a head with more hair in which to hide, they will take what they can get.

Washing your hair doesn’t help to get rid of lice. They have adapted quite nicely to living with humans, and that means that they can hold onto the hair shaft tightly and remain in place through shampooing and rinsing.

African Americans Don’t Get Lice Because They Use Hair Oils

While it is true that African Americans don’t get head lice as often as Caucasions, Asians and Hispanic individuals, this isn’t because of hair oils. According to Lice Clinics of America, African Americans are less likely to contract lice because of the shape of their hair shaft. Lice hold onto the hair shaft with grasping hooks. The shape of the hair shafts in African Americans makes it difficult for lice to grasp the hairs, move around effectively, and attach their eggs.

Lice Jump From One Head to the Next

Lice cannot jump from one person to another. While fleas can jump quite effectively, lice can only crawl. For this reason, the most common way to catch lice from someone else is to have close contact with the head of an infested person or to share items such as hats, scarves, brushes, and combs. Children in close environments such as classrooms can contract lice in many ways, including from hanging backpacks close together, and simply by reading books together or by playing in close contact.

Head Lice Carry Disease

Thankfully, no evidence has ever been found that lice carry and transmit any diseases. Unlike fleas, lice don’t spread any disease, even when they move from one host to another. There is little to no health risks associated with lice, though it’s possible to contract an infection if scratching breaks the skin.

Your Entire Home Must Be Cleaned and Sprayed to Deal With Lice

When a family has a member who has been treated for lice, it’s rarely necessary to clean and spray the entire house. Lice can only survive for about 24 hours off of a host. This means that they tend to not stray off into the surrounding environment unless they are moving directly to another host.

Generally, cleaning and treating the clothing, hairbrushes and head accessories of the individual along with bedding and stuffed toys kept on the bed is enough. Car seats should also be treated since a child’s head makes frequent direct contact. Other family members should also be checked to be sure that they haven’t also been infested.

Resources— Headlice, Lice Clinics of America, Fresh Heads Consumer Reports 

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