The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 3, 2012

Head lice getting a whole new treatment

By Robb Murray
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — There was a time when head lice were like a death sentence to a kid’s rep.

Right or wrong — almost always wrong — kids with lice were seen as dirty. They were given the names of weird shampoos or chemicals to get rid of the bugs, and by the time they got back to their classroom, their reputation was soiled and they went home in a heap of shame.

Today, though?

“We really view it as just a nuisance,” said Kim Peterson, a licensed social worker and nurse at Mankato East High School.

And cases of lice now are handled a lot differently.

Health experts recommend families use a lice-fighting shampoo, but they stay away from nudging families toward specific brands. They offer other tips, too. But it’s not the game-changer for a kid’s social life the way it once was.

And, most importantly, head lice is no longer grounds for sending a kid home. Parents often choose to keep kids home, but it’s not required or even recommended by the school.

“We are an education system,” Peterson said. “Sometimes kids end up spending a couple days of school at home and missing education for something that isn’t medically significant.”

Still, lice happens. And this is the time of year when schools start seeing more cases. When temps drop, more kids wear hats. When kids wear hats, they also share hats, which increases the spread.

“We see a few more cases in the fall and winter,” she said.

She added, however, that this year hasn’t seen any more cases than previous years.

In simple terms, lice are harmless. But they’re still insects crawling around your head, so the school district recommends taking steps to get rid of them.

Lice are attracted to warmth and they feed on blood. Blood is easy to get to via the scalp and the scalp is usually warm, so that’s why they hang out up there. They do not carry infection or disease.

At the schools, there are no “lice checks” like there used to be years ago.

“Kids could be stigmatized, especially in a random check if a kid has to stay a little longer,” Peterson said.

But if a parent is concerned, the school district will discreetly check the child’s head for lice.

Peterson emphasized that, despite the stereotypes about lice showing up in dirty homes, head lice know no boundaries. It’s an equal opportunity bug.

If it happens, though, Peterson recommends people clean things up. The special shampoo thing is for real. And people will need to do lots of laundry.

Beyond the stigma for the kids, Peterson said there’s a level of discomfort for the staff. It’s not because of the fact that it’s lice, but the staff knows how delicate the issue can be for kids and families.

Most head lice cases occur in elementary schools. And in homes with multiple kids, Peterson estimated that in about half those cases the lice make the jump to the other kid.