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Head Lice in Schools

- Head lice and school-age kids -

Summary: Head lice are common in school-age children and outbreaks occur frequently. When outbreaks occur schools should not respond with "no-nit" policies. Instead head lice can be managed with basic information lice, medicated shampoos or lotions, and proper nit combing.

Jack DeAngelis, PhD
OSU Ext. Entomologist (ret.)

Head lice identification

These pages will help you identify and get rid of head lice. There are three types of lice (singular: louse) that bite humans. Other animals, like birds and mammals, have their own species of lice but humans are host to the following three species: Head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis), body lice (Pediculus humanus humanus) and pubic lice (Pthirus pubis).

Head lice and pubic lice attach their eggs, called nits, to head and body hairs whereas body lice lay their nits in clothing. The location of nits, on clothing versus hair, therefore, can be used to easily determine which louse you are dealing with (see Related Articles below).

human body or head louse
human louse about 2 mm (1/16") long

Common misspellings and misnomers for head lice: headlice, cooties

Lice infestations

Head lice are ectoparasites (external, blood-feeding) and are especially common in school-age children. They bite to obtain blood much like mosquitoes and bites cause itchy wounds but they do not transmit diseases.

Head lice are most common in kids where they can be found in any group regardless of socioeconomic level. Head lice are generally transmitted by person to person contact and sharing of personal items which is why they tend to be more common in kids. However, anyone in the family can become infested.

Unfortunately, head lice cause much over-reaction and over-treatment by well-meaning adults. They can be effectively managed despite growing problems with insecticide resistance to pyrethrum and permethrin, the medications in popular lice treatments.

Lice treatments

Head lice treatment is passionately debated by parents, teachers and everyone concerned about kid's health. The bottom line, however, is that head lice are treatable, they are not a serious medical concern, and they should not be a reason for missed school days (see Head Lice Questions for a discussion of so called "No Nit Policies"). Nit (louse egg) removal, or "nit-picking", is the most important step and hair can be treated with oils and conditioners to aid combing to remove nits. Next, medicated shampoos or creme rinses can be used to kill immature and adult lice (see How To Safely Control Head Lice for the detailed steps to follow for safe and effective lice control).

Treating Head Lice

The most important step in any head lice treatment is proper nit picking with a good metal lice comb. Medicated shampoos and lotions serve a secondary role to kill active lice and clean or condition the hair. Combing aids (gels and lubricants) help the comb glide through thick hair. Here are the head lice control supplies we recommend. 

Related Articles

What Do Nits Look Like?

What are Body Lice?

What are Pubic Lice?

Human Lice Guide

nit (upper image) & louse (lower image); notice that the nit is firmly attached to hair shaft

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Jack DeAngelis, PhD,  , email:  [email protected]

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