It’s the kind of school news dreaded nearly as much as a bad report card: a “Dear Parent” bulletin informing you of a “pediculosis alert.”
For the uninitiated, that means at least one child came to school with head lice ( pediculus humanus capitis ), and that’s a bad deal all around. Not only must the lice-infested child be debugged, but the manes of everyone else at the school and at home must be checked for signs of the tiny critters and their eggs (nits).
As disgusting as that sounds, the war against head lice isn’t all gloom and doom. Pharmaceutical companies are offering new treatments and tools, many available without prescription. Pharmacists and physicians are increasingly aware of how to eliminate the bugs and minimize the risk of their return.
The Stats: Experts say head-lice infestation is the second-most common childhood communicable disease, outranked only by colds. Six to 12 million cases occur each year, says Deborah Altschuler, a Boston-area mother of two teen-agers who a decade ago started the informational organization National Pediculosis Assn. in response to an outbreak in her community.
The Stigma: The age-old stereotype--that head lice mainly visit the heads of poor children--just isn’t valid. “It crosses all socioeconomic boundaries, and parents should not feel ashamed,” Altschuler says. But she adds that children chronically affected “are in some way neglected.”
Length of hair is not a factor either, says Doug Stokke, spokesman for Burroughs Wellcome Co., which manufactures the lice treatment Nix Creme Rinse. The condition is more common in girls, he adds.
The Bugs: Lice are tiny, only about 1/16 of an inch long, and prefer the areas around the ears and the nape of the neck. Their nits are only half that length and can stick stubbornly to the hair shafts.
The Controversy: For years, debate has raged over the use of products containing lindane, available only by prescription, to treat head lice. “Avoid any product with lindane,” advises Altschuler, citing it as too toxic.
Lindane-containing shampoos do not lead to brain tumors, concluded a Food and Drug Administration panel that met earlier this year. But the studies presented were not well-substantiated, according to the panel. The committee suggested manufacturer-sponsored studies to completely rule out such a link.
The Weapons: A variety of other treatments, some prescription but many over-the-counter, is available.
Many lice-killing products contain the active ingredient pyrethrin, a chrysanthemum extract.
Besides shampoos and rinses, there are products to help remove the nits.
One is Clear Lice Egg Remover Cleansing Concentrate, designed for use before or after treatment by lice shampoo, says Harry Upton, president of Care Technologies Inc., the manufacturer.
The formula is an “enzyme complex” that breaks the nit’s bond to the hair and speeds removal of lice-shampoo residue, Upton says.
Many shampoos come packaged with a comb to remove nits.
“None of the products will kill all the nits,” Altschuler says. “The products will kill the crawling bugs and some eggs. The combs aren’t 100% effective either.” She suggests clipping hairs with nits still attached.
The Rx: Ask your physician or pharmacist which treatment is best. “I prefer an OTC medicine cream rinse,” says Ken Rothstein, a pharmacist at Better Drugs in Glendale, “but that’s a personal choice.”
Shampooing is just the first step, he reminds parents. “You also need to strip the beds and wash all linens,” he adds. If combs, brushes and other hair accessories can be washed in “red hot” water, fine, Rothstein says. “If not, they’re history.”
Vacuum the house well and discard the bag.
Minimizing Risk: To prevent reinfestation, parents should caution children not to share hats, hairbrushes and combs, hair accessories and stereo headphones.
Pregnancy Alert: Pregnant women should not apply the treatments to children, Altschuler advises. Anyone who uses the products should treat them like the pesticides they are, experts add.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel: To parents of preschool and elementary-age children, pediculosis alerts seem to go on forever. “But after about sixth grade,” pharmacist Rothstein says, “they level off. I’m not sure why.”
* The National Pediculosis Assn. offers a brochure, “Don’t Let Your Child Become an Egghead,” which lists treatment steps for lice infestation. Send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the association at P.O. Box 149, Newton, Mass. 02161. The group also has a toll-free information line, (800) 446-4NPA.
* The Nonprescription Drug Manufacturers Assn. offers a home-treatment guide for lice. Write: NDMA Office of Public Affairs, 1150 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.