Multiple counts of head lice have been reported to the Health and Wellness Center at Le Moyne so far this semester, at a number that Physician Assistant Jennifer Thieban says is “surprising.” The only apparent correlation between affected students is that they are all commuters.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] webpage concerning head lice describes them to be parasites that survive by feeding on human blood. They are two to three millimeters long with tan or grayish-white coloring. They lay their eggs [called nits] at the base of the hair shaft. They cannot hop or fly, but instead get around by crawling around in hair near the scalp. They cannot jump from host to host so they are only spread by contact.
According to the CDC’s FAQ page regarding head lice, they do not carry or transmit disease so they “should not be considered as a medical or public health hazard.” Lice are typically considered to be more of an annoyance, as their bites cause an allergic reaction which causes itchy scalp.
A lice infestation can be diagnosed by seeing a louse crawling around in hair or by locating nits on the base of the hair shaft. If in doubt, contact the Wellness Center or your general practitioner to set up an appointment for a scalp examination.
If lice are confirmed, the typical treatment is to purchase and use a lice kit from a local pharmacy and following up with your doctor.
Thieben says that affected students do not need to stay home from class or work as long as they receive treatment to prevent spreading. She does urge students with lice to try to stay away from communal spaces like the library, and to keep hair up and contained.
The PA reminds us of the importance of treatment and prevention for students living in close quarters like dormitories and apartments where contact with others is hard to avoid. She encourages precaution but warns against fearful reactions, enforcing the fact that lice are not dangerous and are not a threat on campus.
If you are diagnosed with a lice infestation then you should immediately alert anybody you live with so they can conduct a scalp examination and use a lice-killing shampoo as a precaution. You should also contact anyone whose living quarters you’ve been in during the past 24 hours, as all communal spaces and furniture should be vacuumed. Bedding and clothes that have been used two days before treatment should be machine washed in hot water.
Lice are transmitted through hair-to-hair contact but there is a slight risk of picking up lice or viable nits from shared clothing. Lice can only survive without a host for one to two days, so transference from shared surfaces is unlikely.
Thieben informs us that New York State has recently relaxed the policies regarding examinations in schools, and many schools no longer require children with an active lice infestation to be sent home. This may be the cause of the increased lice activity since children with lice may not understand keeping their hands, hair, and head to themselves and the spread of lice may go unnoticed without school nurse examinations. Thieben hypothesizes that this may be why there has been an increase in the reports of lice from commuting college students. If a student lives with younger siblings or has a job working with children, that student has an increased risk of getting lice from contact with kids.
Le Moyne is currently not taking any measures to counteract this issue as too few students have reported lice to classify an “outbreak.” If lice spreads and the issue escalates, Thieben states that multiple departments including health and housing would come together to discuss and solve the problem. Fortunately the number of lice reports is still incredibly small in comparison to the total student body, less than 1 percent.
Lice do not carry or transmit disease and are not dangerous, so there is no reason for worry. Unfortunately there is no sure way to prevent getting lice, although some pharmacies do offer so-called prevention shampoos and hairsprays. There are home-remedies like tea tree oil, but Thieben states that practicing good hygiene is your best bet to avoid the pests, along with remembering not to share hats, scarves, brushes, combs, and headbands with your roommates and friends.
If you suspect you have a lice infestation, call Le Moyne’s Wellness center at 315-445-4440 to set up an examination.