With winter fast-approaching and many kids back to attending school in-person, one small companion is returning to business-as-usual: head lice. These small ectoparasites, which are transmitted through direct hair contact, have not disappeared during the COVID-19 pandemic but have instead continued to spread between people, as they have throughout human history.
Pediculus humanus capitis, commonly known as head lice, is one of two types of louse that have evolved with humans as their sole host since people first emigrated out of Africa. Head lice and their eggs have been found on combs and at archeological digs around the world, with some dating to Ancient Egypt.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), head lice do not transmit disease (though infections can happen due to incessant scratching). Experts emphasize that contracting lice is not a result of the cleanliness of your child, home, or school — it’s very common and can be eased through at-home treatments or specialized clinics. However, itching caused by these parasites is associated with impacts on children’s behavior, school performance, and sleep if left untreated.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world put their citizens into varying forms and levels of lockdown in order to slow the spread of the disease. The effect of these preventive measures on other contagious diseases is being studied, but understanding the impact on parasite transmission is especially important for healthcare officials in poor and developing countries who are disproportionately burdened by them.
A study conducted in metropolitan Buenos Aires during the 180-day period of lockdown instituted by the government of Argentina found that incidences of head lice in children decreased significantly over pre-COVID times. Head lice are primarily spread through direct head-to-head contact in children between ages three and 11.
“They don’t jump, they don’t fly, they don’t swim,” says Krista Lauer, MD, the National Medical Director for Larada Sciences, which owns Lice Clinics of America. “Once it comes into the household, it’s very common for one other person to get it — usually a caregiver.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, because of the lockdowns we weren’t seeing the transmission within a peer group, but we were seeing a higher penetration in a household or family group,” Lauer said.
The Argentinian study came to a similar conclusion: Whereas pre-pandemic more children were coming down with lice infestations, during the lockdown period fewer total people had lice but families with more than two kids had higher numbers of household cases.
Little to no information is available about the number of head lice cases each year in the United States; because the parasites don’t transmit disease, their spread isn’t tracked by the CDC or health departments across the country. The CDC estimates between 6 and 12 million infestations occur each year in children between the ages of three and 11, but these numbers “don’t take into account an infant at home that gets it from their sibling, an older adolescent, young adult or caregiver,” according to Lauer.
School districts may have “no-nit” policies that require students to be sent home from school and only return to class after being treated, but this course of action is discouraged by both the National Association of School Nurses and the American Academy of Pediatrics. They recommend instead that the household of the student be notified and that schools help with nit and lice identification and prevention measures to avoid perpetuating the stigma of infestation.
“I think we need to overcome the shame factor that comes with it, it’s like your kid getting strep throat or mono,” said Lauer. “It happens, and the good news is that there is no negative health consequence that can happen from head lice other than the gross out factor.”
For more information on how to identify and treat head lice, please visit the CDC.
Before you go, check out these natural cold remedies for kids: