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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Pediatricians Say Students With Head Lice Can Stay In School

When you mention head lice to most parents, many have an emotional reaction or horror story to share. But the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending that schools end the practice of sending kids with lice home from school.

Dr. Barbara Frankowski, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Vermont was the lead author of the study the policy was based on.

The policy is based on the idea that lice are more of a nuisance than a health problem.

“It’s something we’ve known for a while, but we have to keep stressing it because it’s so upsetting to parents that we need to make sure that people stay calm and understand that lice don’t spread any disease, it’s just really an itchy nuisance in their child’s head,” Frankowski said.

The risk of head lice spreading at school is low, so it doesn’t make sense to send a child home in the middle of the day if lice are found.

“We want healthy children in school learning, and children with head lice are for the most part healthy children, they can be treated at the end of the school day and sent back the next day, but sending them home makes no sense because if they’re found to have lice, they’ve had those lice on their head probably for the last two or three weeks minimum, so they’re no more contagious at that moment. So let them stay in school and not be embarrassed by being pulled out of class and sent home,” Frankowski said.

Head lice are spread through head to head contact with other children, mostly through playing and sleepovers or occasionally in school through sports, but they don’t survive very well off the head.

“They actually change color to match your child’s head,” Frankowski said, making lice sometimes hard to see when looking for them. They can be treated with pesticide shampoos, or simply picking them out. There are prescription strength shampoos for difficult cases. Frankowski said in some parts of the country, lice are becoming resistant to treatment, and prescription products can be expensive if insurance won’t cover them. There are a number of natural products to remove lice, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

The policy first came out several years ago. A lot of school in Vermont have since abandoned “no nits” policies, which meant students could not come back to school until no nits, or lice egg, were found in a child’s hair.

“The nits are firmly cemented to the hair and they don’t really transfer from one child to the other. So schools do use judgment on whether they’re going to send a child with live lice home, but a lot of them just notify the parents and the parents just treat the child that afternoon or evening and send the child home the next day,” Frankowski said.

But why bother treating lice if they aren’t a health problem?

“You wouldn’t want your dog to have fleas, and you don’t want your child itching with head lice. With a bad infestation, if the child is scratching a lot they can break the skin and get superficial skin infections, and if they’re itching a lot it can disturb their sleep. We’re not saying, don’t worry let your kids run around with bugs on their head, but you know, stay calm and don’t make a big deal about it,” Frankowski said.

Broadcast on Thursday, April 3, 2014 at 7:49 a.m.

Peter was a Producer/Announcer at VPR until 2015. He began his public radio career in 2007 at WHQR-FM in Wilmington, North Carolina where he served as Morning Edition host and reporter, covering county government and Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base. His work has won several Associated Press awards and has appeared on NPR's All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and PRI's This American Life. A graduate of the creative writing program at the University of Maine at Farmington, Peter enjoys writing, cooking and traveling.
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