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Back-to-school season is lice season, too

Just hearing the word makes your head itch.

If you're a parent with young children, you know the word I mean. It starts with an L.

You're already starting to scratch, aren't you?

It's that time of year: Back-to-school season always means an uptick in cases of lice. Kids spread out over the summer, but then they come back to their classrooms and start exchanging hugs, hair brushes and creepy crawly little bugs.

"It's really proximity that makes it a cyclical problem," said Rita Becchetti, the supervisor for school health services in Pinellas County. "On any given day, you're going to be able to find somebody, somewhere that has them."

Not only are they there, but they're getting harder to kill. Over the past several years, lice have steadily grown more resistant to the over-the-counter shampoos used to treat them, such as Nix and Rid. Now they're sometimes resistant to prescription products as well. Media reports have dubbed them "superlice."


Before you panic, take a deep breath, say Becchetti and other experts on the creepy critters.

"We need to make sure that parents are aware that some of the things they do to solve lice problems can be more damaging than the lice themselves," said Phil Koehler, an entomology professor at the University of Florida who studies lice.

Although they're itchy and unpleasant, lice don't cause serious health problems. They're not a sign of being dirty or unkempt.

"People freak out because they think it's a comment on their hygiene, and that's not true," Becchetti said. "It has such a stigma attached. It becomes such an emotional issue for everybody."

And that makes some people go overboard.

Overdosing children on shampoos that can be toxic or putting dangerous products, such as kerosene, on their heads are among the "remedies" the experts have heard about. One prescription medicine, lindane, carries a risk of seizures even when it's used as directed.

"I'd much rather smother (the lice) than give (children) medicine that has side effects," said Dr. Cindy Wood White, a Tampa pediatrician.

White said she has prescribed medication in some cases, but never lindane. While there are no studies that say home remedies work, some of White's patients have had success using tactics such as covering the child's hair in olive oil or vinegar with a shower cap. A hair dryer can also help.

"It all comes down to that nit combing" to get rid of the tiny eggs, White said. "I suspect you could almost get rid of it just by combing."

Combing — "a really good lice comb, metal, not plastic" is the best bet, Koehler said. Becchetti recommends pairing it with a lighted magnifying glass, the kind sold at craft stores for sewing.

In some cities, professional nitpicking services will do the combing for you. Unfortunately, Becchetti doesn't know anybody in the bay area who does that.

Which means you'll have to do it yourself. And just the thought brings that itchy feeling back all over again.

Lisa Greene can be reached at or (813) 226-3322.

Back-to-school season is lice season, too 09/26/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 6:50pm]
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