Last spring, I was taking my daughter Ann’s hair out of a slicked-back ballet bun, when I noticed small, light-brown insects crawling around near her scalp. “We have lice!” I screeched to my husband. With no time to waste, we packed up Ann and her two brothers and headed to a nearby lice clinic. It turns out the infestation had spread from her to myself and her younger brother. The three of us were treated on the spot, and when I dropped Ann at school the next day I proudly produced a “clear of lice” letter just in case. I didn’t want her teacher to freak out and send her home if Ann happened to utter the word lice in the classroom.
In the future, I may not have to be so concerned about proving to the school my kids are free of lice and their eggs, called nits. The Toronto District School Board and surrounding districts have announced they’re reviewing their policies on excluding kids from school if they’re infested with the critters. Currently, the TDSB’s policy states that parents are required to keep kids with head lice at home until the infestation passes (a note or a parent must certify their child is clear), but this policy is at odds with Toronto Public Health, the Canadian Paediatric Society, and common sense.
According to the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS), “‘No-nit’ policies that keep children with head lice away from school are not necessary because: head lice are common among young children, head lice don’t spread disease, cases of head lice are often misdiagnosed and children can have head lice for several weeks with no symptoms (like itching or the presence of bugs or nits).”
Similarly, Toronto Public Health says kids can attend daycare or school with lice, but that it should be treated and kids should avoid head-to-head contact.
And that’s just the point. If your kid has lice, yes, treat it. But because it can take several days to completely clear an infestation, and the transmission of lice can be significantly reduced by taking some simple measures (see below), keeping kids home from school—and parents away from work—until the head is completely nit- and louse-free doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
If something is bugging your kid, here’s how to proceed:
Check the head: If you know someone close to your kid has lice, or she’s complaining of an itchy head, inspect the scalp. You’re looking for a small, grayish-white or tan insect, about the size of a sesame seed. They can be hard to spot: with a bright light (direct sunlight works well) look around the ears, at the crown of the head and the base of the neck. If you find something and it comes out of the hair easily, it’s not a louse (these stick to the hair shaft). For a professional opinion, take your kid to a doctor, public health nurse or a private lice clinic.
Nits (eggs) are whitish-grey, tan or yellow and are about the size of a grain of sand. You’ll find them close to the scalp and while they may look like dandruff, which flakes off, nits stick to the hair shaft. To look for nits, part hair in small sections, moving from one side of the head to the other. Check carefully, preferably with a nit comb, looking close to the scalp. Keep in mind, however, that finding nits does not necessarily mean there is a lice infestation.
Treat it: Once you’ve confirmed a case of lice, you’ll want to act as soon as possible. According to the CPS, there are three insecticide shampoos and rinses approved to treat lice. However, lindane (brand name Hexit Shampoo or PMS-Lindane Shampoo) should not be used on kids under two. Treat the scalp as per package directions and repeat in seven to 10 days. If you’re looking for a non-insecticidal product, Resultz is approved for kids four years and up.
Stop the spread: Contrary to myth, lice can’t fly or hop—they can only spread by crawling from one head of hair onto another, which requires very close prolonged contact. Remind your kids not to share or borrow hats or trade hairbrushes or hair accessories with friends. Lice can live for one or two days off the scalp, so wash any bedding, pillows, towels and hats that have touched your kid’s head in that timeframe, but don’t worry too much about extra cleaning. When you send your kid off to school, remind her not to borrow hats or trade hairbrushes with friends.