It's a word that can make your skin crawl.


Parents of young school-age kids fear this word and dread the day their second- or third-grader might come home with a letter from school, advising of the shampooing and nit-combing that lies in their child's future.

And yes, school nurses in some Ravalli County schools have found head lice recently, prompting the mandatory removal of the infested students.

"There is always lice in the school district," Kristin Tolson, a nurse in Hamilton's school district, said. "Some years we have more than others. This year, it seems like we have more than we did last year, but last year was a particularly light year. I would not say that we have a widespread epidemic of lice infestation."

Judy Griffin, Ravalli County public health nurse, agreed that lice are an uncomfortable fact of life in Bitterroot Valley schools, just as they are in the rest of the nation.

"I know it has gone around (this fall)," Griffin said. "Head lice has been here for who knows how long and this year's no different."

So far, Tolson said, head checks have been performed at Grantsdale and Washington elementary schools, with a check at Daly School set for next week. Hamilton Middle School is not routinely checked for lice.

A child who has lice is sent home with a letter explaining the methods used to get rid of the lice infestation, Tolson said.

Treatment begins with using a pesticidal shampoo, followed by painstakingly removing the nits, or eggs, with a special comb.

"It's a huge amount of work," Tolson said. "But it's really more of a nuisance issue because they don't cause disease."

Again Griffin seconded the thought.

"It's just really time-consuming," she said. "And it's not just (shampooing and using the nit comb), it's washing all the bedding and clothes and hats."

Then there is the issue of checking, and if necessary treating, the rest of the family, Griffin added.


In addition to using a chemical shampoo like Rid or Nix, there are additional steps the Centers for Disease Control recommends:

• Machine wash and dry clothing, bed linens and other items that the infested person wore or used during the two days before treatment using the hot water (130 degrees) laundry cycle and the high heat drying cycle. Clothing and items that are not washable can be dry-cleaned; or they can be sealed in a plastic bag and stored for two weeks.

• Soak combs and brushes in hot water (at least 130 degrees) for 5-10 minutes.

• Vacuum the floor and furniture, particularly where the infested person sat or was lying while infested, although the risk of getting infested by a louse that has fallen onto a rug or carpet or furniture is very small.

Since head lice survive less than one or two days if they fall off a person and cannot feed, and nits cannot hatch and usually die within a week if they are not kept at the temperature of the average human scalp, spending much time and money on housecleaning activities is not necessary to avoid reinfestation, the CDC says.

Treating the infested with pesticide sprays or fumigants is never a good idea, as those products are toxic if inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Tolson said the biggest issue surrounding lice is whether the particular parasite infestation has become resistant to over-the-counter treatment shampoos, which are typically applied twice.

If, after removing all the eggs and using the shampoo as directed, lice are still present, Tolson said she typically advises families to talk to their doctor for a recommendation of a prescription that might end the infestation.

Tolson said she understands that over the years people have attached a particular stigma to lice, and have accordingly urged their school districts to take measures to reduce exposure.

But, she said, according to research by a Harvard professor, the notion that a kid should be immediately removed from school until treatment might just be an over-reaction.

And if, based on that research, districts were to start relaxing the rules for mandatory removal of infested kids, it might make the whole issue of having a kid come down with lice less traumatic.

"But that is probably a long way off," she said.

For information on head lice and treating an infestation, check the Centers for Disease Control website on the parasite at

Reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at 363-3300 or


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