Clean Wisely (Not Widely) To Banish Lice

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Written by Maria Gaura

Healthy Living - Healthy Living

SANTA CRUZ (January 2011) – Discovering lice on your child’s head is more than a medical issue – it can throw your household into a tailspin. At a moment’s notice you may have to keep your children home from school, spend hours combing through their hair, and rid your home of an unknown number of teeny-tiny bugs.
It’s a particularly grim scenario for working parents. And unfortunately, bad advice about defeating lice is almost at prolific as are the little beasts themselves.
It is widely believed that head lice will crawl out of a victim’s hair and hide in clothing, bedding, rugs and couches – and there wait hungrily for days or weeks, eager to scamper onto a new host.
As a result, parents are commonly advised to wash every stitch of household bedding and clothing in scalding water, vacuum the carpets and furniture daily, place bike helmets and hats in the freezer for 24 hours, and wrap all soft toys in airtight plastic bags for two weeks … or three weeks … or a month.
The truth is that head lice rarely leave a victim’s head, as they cannot survive for long away from our body warmth and blood supply. They will not infest or lay eggs on your sofa or plush toys. And interesting research has shown that limited housecleaning, targeting only bedding and some personal items, is just as effective in preventing re-infestation as a heroic sanitation blitzkrieg.
“Lice can eat only human blood, there’s nothing else in your house for them to eat. So why would they go to your couch?” said Dr. Dale Pearlman, a Menlo Park physician whose research on head lice has generated worldwide interest. “No (research) articles have ever reported finding head lice on couches or plush toys, there’s no evidence in the literature of plush toys with head lice eggs stuck on them.”
Dr. Pearlman believes that the popular emphasis on housecleaning has its roots in World War I, when diseases carried by body lice killed millions, and public health campaigns of the era necessarily focused on the cleaning of clothing and bedding. Body lice live and lay their eggs in the folds of clothing, venturing out only to feed on their human hosts. Head lice, on the other hand, live full-time on the human scalp, and cannot survive long without our body heat and regular blood meals. Head lice do not carry diseases, while body lice can carry typhus, relapsing fever, and other lethal microbes.
Fortunately, body lice in the U.S. have been nearly eradicated by modern laundry practices, and are now mainly a problem in destitute, homeless populations.
“I think the cleanup rules for body lice got extended to head lice,” Pearlman said. “But it’s a completely different critter.”
Recent research supports the contention that head lice rarely venture from their home scalps – unless it is directly to another scalp. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that transmission of lice is almost always the result of direct contact with the head of an infested individual. Picking up lice by way of a hat, brush or comb is “much less likely, but may occur rarely.”
A study conducted by the Head Lice Research Centre in Australia examined public school classrooms for evidence of free-roaming head lice and came up empty-handed. Researchers examined children in 118 classrooms, and collected 14,033 lice from the heads of 466 infested children – about 20 percent of the total. Researchers then meticulously examined the classroom floors, and found not a single free-range louse.
The same researchers then turned their attention to pillowcases, and examined the heads and pillows of 48 infested subjects. The subjects were found to host an average of 38 live lice apiece, yet examination of their pillowcases after they rose in the morning found a total of two louse nymphs – an incidence of about 4 percent. Other research found that machine washing and drying was sufficient to reduce this “slight” risk of infection from shared bedding. 
Dr. Pearlman asked the 133 families participating in his research trial to simply sanitize the infested child’s combs and brushes, have the child change into clean clothes, and to heat all of the child’s bedding in the clothes dryer for ten minutes before replacing it on the bed. Despite this minimal cleaning, only 6 percent of the research subjects later suffered recurrences.
Busy parents can also turn to hair professionals who will come to your house, inspect your family’s scalps, and expertly treat infestations. Santa Cruz hair stylist Brooke Butler (831) 325-7730) runs a downtown hair salon, but also makes after-hours house calls to help out parents overwhelmed by lice anxiety. Butler’s matter-of-fact approach is reassuring, and she relies on non-toxic treatments to “Get That Louse Outta Your House,” as her flyers promise.
Pearlman says his patients are sometimes skeptical that his recommendations aren’t more onerous, but they often stop him later and thank him profusely. “To not have to clean up your house, and not have to comb out the nits – it’s like a gift from the gods for busy parents.”