Don’t panic! Selfies (probably) don't spread head lice

Ian Mendes reacts to a recent news article that suggests selfies are to blame for an increase in head lice cases.

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Photo: iStockphoto

Follow along as Ottawa-based sports reporter Ian Mendes writes about the joys of raising daughters, Elissa and Lily, with wife, Sonia. 

Over the past few days, your social media feed has likely been flooded with a news story circulating about head lice—and the unlikely connection to selfies.

The headlines screamed out: Selfies causing spread of head lice!

On the surface, it seems like a ridiculous connection to make. I mean, what’s the next scare-tactic headline: Does texting cause rabies?

But I admit I was drawn in by the sensational headline and proceeded to read the story, in which a California lice expert says she has seen a significant uptick in lice cases amongst teens in the past year.

Marcy McQuillan, who runs a company called Nitless Noggins, is quoted in the story as saying, “Every teen I’ve treated, I ask about selfies, and they admit that they are taking them every day. I think parents need to be aware, and teenagers need to be aware, too. Selfies are fun, but the consequences are real.”

Now I don’t want to nitpick someone who picks nits for a living, but we should point out that this is just the opinion of one woman. And she failed to really hand over any hard data on how many cases she has been dealing with to suggest this was actually a real problem. She did mention there was a 50 percent spike in lice amongst teenagers, but does that mean that six kids were affected instead of four? More data could have helped with her case in this situation.

But more importantly, several experts have come out in the past 24 hours to challenge her claim, saying there is not any real conclusive evidence that suggests a direct connection between selfies and lice. However, those headlines haven’t been as flashy as the initial story that claimed selfies were spreading lice. Nobody clicks on a story that has a headline which reads, “Experts use rational judgment to offer opinion.”

In an article in the Vancouver Province, British Columbia medical health officer Reka Gustafson said the province has not seen or heard of a recent increase of head lice in older youth. “Just because it’s a biologically possible mechanism, it would still be a stretch that there’s any association,” Gustafson is quoted as saying. “The reality is, head lice is transmitted in younger children and older children for reasons we understand and also reasons we don’t understand.”

Another expert—Dr. Richard Pollock with the Harvard School of Public Health—was quoted as telling several news outlets that McQuillan’s selfie theory is a marketing ploy and simply nonsense.

Pollock told NBC News that it is fairly uncommon for teenagers to get lice in the first place, meaning they are not likely to spread it—even if they are taking a lot of selfies. Lice is most common in children ages three to 11, so the number of teenagers who are affected is minimal to begin with. Furthermore, he says that lice is normally spread through direct and prolonged head-to-head contact—such as if two people share the same hat or hairbrush. A brief moment of head-to-head contact for a quick selfie would likely not be long enough to transmit lice from one person to the next.

Pollock added that the idea of it happening enough to be considered a widespread problem is “ridiculous.”

So while the headline was sensational, it turns out that selfies probably don’t spread head lice—unless you have a bunch of five-year-olds with itchy scalps sharing an iPhone.

Still, you should probably show your kids the first headline and tell them that selfies do cause head lice. After all, if you can convince some teenagers to take fewer selfies, you are making the world a better place.

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