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Moms and Pros Tackle Lice

Head lice is one of the top reasons children miss school, yet there's no single, foolproof remedy.

One of the most time-honored approaches is nitpicking. This involves picking lice eggs, known as nits, out of hair.

Robin Meigher of Potomac, Md., became a nitpicker after her 8-year-old daughter, Natalie, was sent home from school with head lice. She just never imagined that she'd still be picking a year later.

"They like to hang out close to the hairline," Meigher says of the nits as she searches through Natalie's hair using a pet comb with long metal teeth.

When she spots one, she isolates the strand of hair. The tiny egg is no bigger than the tip of a ballpoint pen, and it's cemented to the hair with a natural glue-like substance made by the mother louse.

"You can feel this little bump on the hair, and it doesn't come off easily at all," says Meigher. To remove the egg, she yanks out the strand of hair.

'No Nits' Policy Flawed?

Meigher hopes her diligent work will pay off. The goal is to keep Natalie in school. She's been sent home five times since her initial head-lice outbreak last year. School administrators enforce a "no nit" policy in an effort to contain the spread of head lice, yet there's little evidence to suggest that the policy is effective. Nationwide, it's estimated that 12 million to 24 million school days are lost annually.

During the initial outbreak, parents are encouraged to use over-the-counter head lice shampoos. Studies show these work well to kill off the live bugs, yet recent research has found that the bugs may have become resistant to the medicated shampoos.

Lice expert Richard Pollack of the Harvard School of Public Health says there's no real trick to prevention, short of isolating a child.

"The more social your child is, the more friends he or she may have. If there's lots of head-touching, rug wrestling, these sorts of things, the more likely they may encounter head louse," Pollack says.

This is why elementary school children seem to pass it around. Lice are blood-sucking parasites that live only on the hair of people, explains Pollack. They spread through direct head-to-head contact.

"The commonly held belief, which is folklore, is that lice are shared through things like combs and brushes and hats and helmets," Pollack says.

Some authorities believe these personal items can help transmit head lice from one person to another. But Pollack explains the bugs cannot fly or jump. And studies show that once the lice are off the scalp, they die within hours.

Since head lice don't transmit disease, Pollack views them as a nuisance. Usually, the only symptom is an itchy scalp. Pollack argues that school administrators should abandon their "no-nits" policy, and the nation's leading pediatric groups agrees.

In 2002, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised its head-lice position, stating that no healthy child should be excluded from or allowed to miss school because of head lice, and that "no nit" policies for return to school should be discouraged.

Professional Nitpickers

For moms who are too grossed out or busy to pick nits, there's a new option. Franchises of professional nit-picking salons are popping up around the country.

Maria Botham runs the Los Angeles-based Hair Fairies. She says there's still a social stigma attached to lice. Many people mistakenly believe that the bugs are related to hygiene.

"Most clients who come in are just devastated," says Botham.

Using shampoos, creams, and nitpicking, the Hair Fairies salon can usually knock out an infestation in three hourlong sessions.

"It's a manual, labor-intensive process," says Botham, so to keep the kids distracted, the Hair Fairies salon offers Gameboys, DVDs and toys. The treatment costs $75 an hour and comes with a 14-day guarantee.

And since it's hard for kids to stop putting their heads together, the Hair Fairies have a lot of repeat customers.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.