I’m old enough to remember a time when it was laughed it off as a joke when classmates accused you of having cooties. But nowadays, cooties, or head lice, are no laughing matter. There are more cases of head lice infestations among children ages 3 through 10, than all other communicable diseases combined, except for the common cold.
Head lice are among the 3,000 species of louse that harass birds and most mammals. Head lice feed only on humans and cannot be transferred to pets. Like all the louses, head lice are ectoparasites, insects that live on the surface of their hosts, rather than inside them.
The head louse spends its entire life living on the human scalp, feasting on blood. Females lay 3 to 10 eggs, or nits, a day on strands of hair, and as many as 100 nits during their 30-day lifetime. The nits are attached to hair follicles with fixative cement secreted by the louse. This makes nits very hard to remove.
The tiny vampires can’t fly and can’t jump with their stumpy little legs. Head lice can, however, crawl very quickly from hair to hair. They spread to non-infected persons through direct head-to-head contact. In addition head lice can be spread through indirect contact—the sharing of headphones, combs and hair brushes, hats, helmets, and headbands.
The head louse has a very efficient tube-like mouthpart armed with sharp teeth. The blood-sucker will bite the scalp four to five times a day to feed. Like mosquitos, lice inject an anti-coagulant to prevent blood clotting. Allergic reactions to the saliva are not immediate and may not appear for several weeks. This means a scratching, frustrated child may have already had head lice for two weeks. Repeated scratching can cause inflammation or even infection from lice feces. Symptoms include mild fever and irritability.
Six to 12 million American children are treated for head lice every year. The lice are not an indication of poor personal hygiene or living in an unclean environment. Treatment requires chemical shampoos available at drug stores. Once the nits are picked, keep your kids from sharing pillows, hoods, and headphones with their friends. That way they won’t be having a lousy time at school.