Head Lice Is No Reason to Miss School, Report Says

Filed under: In The News, Day Care & Education, Research Reveals: Toddlers & Preschoolers, Education: Big Kids, Research Reveals: Big Kids, Education: Tweens, Research Reveals: Tweens, Expert Advice: Health

Experts say kids with lice can stay in school. Credit: Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel, Philadelphia Inquirer / MCT

Your daughter's teacher notices a tiny speck moving near the nape her neck: It's lice. Should she:

A.) Call you to come pick up your child.
B.) Ask the nurse to confirm her diagnosis of lice.
C.) Let the child finish the school day, but tell you not to bring her back until you are sure the infestation has cleared.

According to a revised clinical report issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the only correct answer is B. There is no need to send a child home from school because he or she has been found to have head lice, the report states.

The reason? They've probably had the lice for ages, anyway. Lice can live on a child's head for six to eight weeks before itching starts, Cynthia Devore, a pediatrician, chair elect of the Council on School Health for the American Academy of Pediatrics and a co-author of the revised report, tells ParentDish.

"Children usually have head lice for weeks before we know it," she says.

That isn't to say lice shouldn't be treated promptly -- it should -- there's just no reason to make a child miss school, Devore says. And policies that require kids to be nit-free before they return to the classroom should be abandoned, the report says.

Outbreaks of head lice can cause parental emotions to rise to the surface, but should be kept in perspective, Devore says.

"People should take a deep breath and not forget to exhale, and try to understand the life cycle of the insect coupled with the civil liberties of children," she tells ParentDish, citing cases where kids have been forced to miss months of school because of recurrent head lice.

While annoying, the pests don't carry any health risks, so a child's right to attend school should not be compromised because of them.

If your child does have a confirmed case of lice, there are many viable options, but the report recommends one percent permethrin lotion as the initial treatment. Whatever shampoo parents choose to use, they should "follow the instructions to the letter, including timing the clock," Devore says, adding that the treatment should be repeated seven to 10 days later, with the ninth day being the ideal day to do so.

After that, parents should monitor their child for signs of recurrence. When examining your child, be sure to do so in good light and focus on the nape of the neck and behind the ears. Lice are roughly the size and shape of a sesame seed and can vary in shade from translucent or white to amber. The difference between a nit and, say, a fleck of dandruff, is that the nit is "cemented to the hair shaft" and you need to use a fingernail to dislodge it, Devore says.

If the lice come back, a third treatment should be applied seven to 10 days after the second, with the ninth day again being the ideal time to treat. If that doesn't clear the lice up, contact your doctor because there may be resistance to the medication, Devore says.

Head lice have nothing to do with poor hygiene, Devore stresses, and while they are contagious, they are not highly contagious.

"It's not like a flea -- it doesn't jump, it doesn't have wings; it moves by grasping a shaft of hair and moving up," she explains.

And, finally, remember it's not your child's fault he or she has lice.

"What we encourage is that parents use this opportunity to have some close physical contact with their child and some good close conversation with their child rather than being angry and tugging at the child's hair," Devore says.

Related: How to Get Rid of Head Lice

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.