Pandemic or not, kids are still getting — and spreading — head lice

According to those in the world of professional nitpicking, Pediculus humanus capitis, the much-despised head louse, has returned.

“It’s definitely back,” says Scott Weiss, owner of Torrance Lice Removal.   It’s a sign that things are coming back to normal.”

Colds and more serious bugs like respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, are also back. That may leave some to wonder: With all the COVID-19 prevention measures in place, how are kids sharing these things?

Like the coronavirus, all these bugs depend on human sociability. Unfortunately, the measures that many reopened schools have taken to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 — masks, hand-washing, vaccination — do little to deter the spread of the head louse. However, physical distancing, such as spacing desks 3 feet apart, should be helping, if it’s actually happening.

Lice are, in theory, harder to spread than the SARS-CoV-2 virus because proximity alone isn’t enough: They usually need head-to-head contact. If a kid gets lice, odds are it means that kid spent some quality time close enough to another kid for the parasite to make its move. (Researchers tend to agree that transmission via inanimate objects like combs and hats is minimal.)

It’s the couch potato of pests

The head louse is not known for its fortitude or athletic prowess. It’s basically the couch potato of pests. Adults can’t survive more than a day or two without snacking on blood. Their eggs can’t hatch without the warmth of a human head, and will die within about a week if not in those cozy conditions. The bugs can’t jump or fly — only crawl. The one thing going for the head louse is its highly specialized claws, evolved to grasp human hair.

Unlike the body louse, the head louse isn’t known to spread disease. An infestation doesn’t indicate anything about a person’s hygiene. (In fact, the lore of delousers says that the bugs prefer clean hair because it’s more grabbable.) And despite common misconceptions, they can colonize people of all ages, races and ethnicities.

COVID-19 lockdowns were not great from a louse-world-domination standpoint. But the critters have been bonding with us for tens of thousands of years.  A little lockdown wasn’t going to end the romance.

Federico Galassi, a researcher with Argentina’s Pest and Insecticide Research Center, found that strict, early COVID-19 lockdowns did, indeed, lead to a decline in head lice among kids in Buenos Aires, but the bugs came nowhere close to being eliminated. His study found prevalence dropped from about 70% to about 44%.

And one thing is clear: When people shut their doors and hunkered down in early lockdowns, the lice were right there hunkered down with us. When Torrance Lice Removal opened their doors after the return from the Covid Lockdown, Weiss says “the cases of head lice were heavier than we’ve ever seen.” And it wasn’t just one or two people in the household with lice, but the entire household.

Where the lice are

Now, infestation rates are back to pre-lockdown norms, despite school COVID-19 protections.

Richard Pollack, chief scientific officer with pro-bono pest-identification service IdentifyUS, said most claims about louse prevalence are “marketing nonsense” from a largely unregulated industry focused on apparent infestations that often turn out to be just dandruff, glitter, hair spray, grass-dwelling springtail insects innocuous fungus or even cookie crumbs.

It’s possible that the recent increase in business for professional lice removal suggests that people are now comfortable seeking help outside the home rather than it being a sign of a surge in the bugs.

While little research exists to confirm whether there is a real rise in lice, the National Association of School Nurses agrees that the bugs aren’t likely spreading in the classroom because in-school louse transmission is considered rare. Instead, Boswell said, it’s more likely that as other activities resumed — sleepovers, play dates, summer camp, family gatherings — the bugs prospered once more.  Head lice indicate that the child has friends!