New safety measures aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 are changing assumptions about head lice, according to The National Association of School Nurses.
“We have social distancing, doing a lot of hygiene, kids aren't sitting on top of each other on the floor anymore,” Linda Mendonça, president of the association told USA Today. “They’re trying to keep kids separated.”
So why are these procedures altering the perception of lice? Previously, it was commonly thought that lice did not need close contact to spread. However, the microscopic insects don’t have much ability to travel from one head to another. They can’t fly or jump – they can only crawl.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adult head lice are roughly 2–3 mm long. They infest the head and neck by attach their eggs to the base of the hair shaft, where they feed off human blood. While head lice can cause itchiness and discomfort, they are not known to carry disease. Over-the-counter and prescription medication can be used to treat the condition.
Mendonça said lice are likely to spread through actions like sharing a hairbrush.
With the new safety measures in place, however, school nurses are optimistic that case numbers will be down this year, said USA Today.
An estimated 6 million to 12 million infestations occur each year in the U.S.
among children 3 to 11 years of age, according to the CDC.
With the new pandemic-inspired policies, older lice prevention methods that carried social stigma may not longer be needed, USA Today added. Mendonça explained that singling out a child with head lice and making them leave school made the condition seem like a “really bad thing.”
“I think ending those kind of practices will help decrease the stigma,” Mendonça said. “Certainly, treat it, it's important, but that's it. It's not this horrible disease.”
The National Association of School Nurses, American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC have advocated abandoning other common protocols around head lice, such as classroom screenings and excluding children with head lice from class.
“It’s just dealing with the stigma around it that we are really trying to do,” Mendonça said. “To decrease that and to educate and not to be exclusionary around that in school with students, teachers and staff because they all get very nervous too.”
Adults shouldn’t be excluded from work or school due to a case of head lice either, according to Mendonça.
“Getting lice certainly can happen in schools, absolutely,” she said. “But right now, with the mitigation strategies, I think it's helping decrease the risk of transmission in the classroom.”