Just the sight of head-scratching can have any parent breaking out in a cold sweat. And who can blame them? Out of all the gross things kids can catch from daycare or school, kids getting lice is one of those parenting nightmare scenarios.
The little bugs that live on little heads can summon plenty of negative emotions: disgust over the ick factor, despair at the exhausting treatment attempts ahead, and maybe worst of all, fear of scrutiny from fellow parents.
But before you start shame-spiralling over the head parasites, take a breath. Getting lice is not as bad as you think it is. Let’s look at the facts.
Lice love everyone and are mostly harmless
Lice are wingless bugs that live on human scalps. An individual bug is known as a louse, so your family truly is in a lousy situation when you get them. Each louse is as small as a sesame seed and their tiny eggs, called nits, look like grains of sand. While common in preschoolers, people of any age can get lice.
No one tracks how many kids get lice, but the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control estimates that up to 12 million Americans get lice every year. For scale, Statistics Canada reports that there are only 5.8 million kids under 14 in Canada. Think about it: lice is so prevalent that you’d need to double the Canadian population of children to come close to how many of our southern neighbours have itchy heads.
Lice feast on the blood they suckle from scalps. While that sounds painful, their bites can’t be felt and are mostly irritating. At worst, too much scratching can cause a scalp infection. In fact, many kids don’t even feel the itchy symptom; their infestation can only be detected through a visual check.
Parents are more anxious, misinformed about lice than doctors
In spite of lice’s relatively harmless symptoms, parents still worry way more than they should over the pests. An Australian study found that while parents are very alarmed about lice, health departments see the parasites as a low-grade concern.
What’s more, more than one-third of parents surveyed in the study got a failing grade when quizzed about basic lice facts. They believed that lice can jump from head to head (No, they can’t), can live on pets (Also false), and that kids can get lice from sharing hats (It’s incredibly rare).
Your kids are (probably) clean enough
One of the biggest misconceptions about lice is that it happens to children with poor hygiene. It’s certainly perpetuated by parents who shame other parents and assume they don’t keep their little ones spic and span.
But kids don’t have to even remotely look like Pig Pen from “Charlie Brown” to get lice. As the Canadian Paediatric Society puts it, getting lice doesn’t indicate poor hygiene, and the bugs are not a vector of disease.
Watch: Alyson Schafer on how to handle head lice. Story continues below.
Kids can still go to school too
So, there’s no reason to become social pariahs. The Canadian Paediatric Society states “there is no sound medical rationale” kids with lice can’t go to school or daycare. You won’t need to call in sick either, as long as everyone carrying the bugs gets treated.
Teachers are doing their part to encourage attendance; school boards are leaning towards policies that keep itchy kids in class. As long as they aren’t doing direct head-to-head contact with anyone, your kids don’t need to be shunned by their classmates.
There are silver linings to lice
Lice are a fact of life, so why not look on the bright side? As HuffPost contributor Annmarie Kelly-Harbaugh writes, getting rid of your kid’s lice is an old-fashioned ritual that can bond families. It might even be a teaching moment.
“Having head lice is also an opportunity to show your kids the difference between an actual problem and a nuisance,” Kelly-Harbaugh says. “Use the comb-out time to talk to your child about actual issues. Discuss topics that are bigger than a few bugs on a comb.”
There are so many other health conditions kids get that are actually worth fretting over: flus, colds and pneumonia, for example. Even when compared to other creepy-crawlies, lice are better to deal with than a stomach-churning case of ringworm or a painful bee sting. With lice, you can at least be assured that your kid isn’t in pain and that their physical health is intact.
Still stressed over lice? Here’s how to manage
In spite of all this reassurance, the anxiety of lice management can frazzle any parent. Very Well Health says that reaction is natural, especially when parents are already stressed about everyday burdens.
“It’s funny how insurmountable small irritations can seem when already dealing with others stressors,” a parent blogger from Whats Your Grief lamented. “A small bite to eat is no big deal when you’re hungry, but when your plate is already full and someone tries to pile more on, that same bite can seem almost nauseating.”
Fortunately, it’s easy to manage lice-related stress. Very Well Health lists three steps for overcoming the first wave of lice anxiety: know the facts, be patient with yourself, and breathe.
To curb stress, parents should also stop nit-picking. Not literally, of course, but as lice exterminator Brittany Wilcher told WRAL News, families shouldn’t work themselves to exhaustion trying to deep-clean their entire households. It’s very hard for lice to survive once off the scalp.
Parents shouldn’t watch who their kids play with like hawks either. A simple heads-up about the headache you’re dealing with to other parents in your circles will do nicely.
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