Head Lice Management in the School Setting
It is the position of the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) that the management of head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis) in the school setting should not disrupt the educational process. Leadership provided by the registered professional school nurse (hereinafter referred to as the school nurse) can impact reduction of the stigma associated with head lice by providing accurate health education including anticipatory guidance to the school community and implementing evidence-based strategies for the management of head lice in schools. Evidence-based strategies include abandoning “no-nit” school policies, allowing children to remain in class and participate in school-sponsored activities when live lice or nits (the eggs of head lice) are found on their heads, notifying parents/caregivers at the end of the school day when findings indicate the presence of a head lice infestation, and educating parents/caregivers about evidence-based treatment options.
In the United States, head lice infestations are most common among preschool and elementary school-age children and their household members regardless of socioeconomic status and hygienic living conditions (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2013a). According to research head lice infestations predominantly affect the age group of 3-11 years (Frankoswski & Bocchini, 2010), with an estimated 6 million to 12 million cases annually (CDC, 2013a). A 2004 study estimated annual direct and indirect costs associated with head lice infestations and recent treatment costs at $1 billion (Hansen & O’Hayer, 2004). “No-nit” policies that require a child to be free of nits before he or she can return to school lack evidence of being effective, result in unnecessary absenteeism, and may violate affected children’s civil liberties (Pontius, 2014; CDC, 2013a). Unnecessary absenteeism leads to missed learning opportunities for the student and potentially lost family wages due to loss of parent/guardian workdays (Pontius, 2014).
Head lice are not known to cause disease; however, secondary bacterial infection of the skin resulting from contaminated scratching and related lesions can occur. Research has shown that the survival of head lice when not on the head is usually less than one day, and the eggs can only hatch when incubated by body heat found near the scalp (Devore et al., 2015; CDC, 2013c). Transmission occurs primarily through head-to-head contact and infrequently through indirect contact with shared personal belongings.
Even with this knowledge, the presence of head lice can negatively affect families and schools. For the student and family there can be significant social stigma and caregiver strain (Gordon, 2007). For the school, when evidence- based policies and intervention strategies are not in place, head lice can significantly disrupt the education process (CDC, 2013c; Pontius, 2014).
In the past, many schools with “no nit” policies expended innumerable hours and resources in attempts to eradicate head lice infestations. Studies have shown that control measures such as, mass screenings for nits ,have not been shown to have a significant effect on the incidence of head lice in a school community, nor have they shown to be cost-effective (Devore et al., 2015; Meinking & Taplin, 2011; CDC, 2013a). Communication between school personnel and parents/caregivers highlighting cases of head lice (e.g., “head lice outbreak letters”) has been shown to increase community anxiety, increase social stigma causing embarrassment of affected infested students, and puts students’ rights to confidentiality at risk (Gordon, 2007; Pontius, 2014).
Head lice treatment success is variable, adding to confusion and frustration among students, families, and members of the school community. Some children develop persistent head lice, which requires concentrated efforts to address treatment as well as the stress experienced by the child and family (Gordon, 2007). Head lice in some communities have developed resistance to common over-the-counter treatments, resulting in the need for a more individualized approach to management by a healthcare provider (Yoon et al., 2014; Meinking et al., 2002; Devore et al., 2015). Treatment failures can also result from initial misdiagnosis, non-adherence to a treatment protocol, a new infestation acquired after treatment, or the lack of use of an ovicidal product (Devore et al., 2015; Pontius; 2014; Pollack, Kiszewski, & Spielman, 2000; CDC, 2013b).
Evidence-based strategies for the management of head lice in the school setting can reduce the incidence of infestations, the social stigma and caregiver strain experienced by students and families, and the negative impact on students’ education. The school nurse can provide leadership within the school community to effectively manage head lice by:
Attaining knowledge and competency that reflect current evidence-based school nursing practice related to the management of head lice (American Nurses Association & National Association of School Nurses [ANA & NASN], 2011).
Providing accurate health education to the school community focused on dispelling common myths about head lice (e.g., incidence, life cycle of the head louse, mode of transmission, importance of regular surveillance at home, recommended evidence-based treatment options, care of the environment) (ANA & NASN, 2011 Pontius, 2014).
Advocating and providing rationale for the elimination of mass school screenings for head lice (Devore et al., 2015; CDC, 2013a).
Educating families about how to assess their children for suspected head lice (Devore et al., 2015).
Providing privacy when conducting student health assessment for suspected or reported cases of head lice (ANA & NASN, 2011).
Returning affected students to class or other school sponsored activities with instruction to avoid head-to-head contact (Pontius, 2014). If live lice or nits are found,
Advocating for and providing rationale for the abandonment of “no-nit” school policies that require a child to be free of nits before he or she can return to school (Devore et al., 2015; Pontius, 2014).
Educating parents/caregivers about the chosen evidence-based treatment option, the importance of adherence with the treatment protocol, and the importance of reassessment for recurrence (Devore et al., 2015; Pontius, 2014).
The school nurse is the health professional who provides leadership for the school community to implement evidence-based strategies for the management of head lice in the school setting. The role of the school nurse includes the following (Pontius, 2014; Devore et al., 2015; CDC, 2013a):
Provide accurate health education to the school community about the etiology, transmission, assessment, and treatment of head lice;
Advocate for school policy that is more caring and less exclusionary (i.e., elimination of the “no-nit” school policies);
Implement intervention strategies that are student-centered;
Support the current treatment recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics and CDC; and
Participate in research that evaluates the effectiveness of head lice policies and educational programs.
It is unlikely that all head lice infestations can be prevented. Parents/caregivers will benefit from receiving support from the school nurse about the importance of regular surveillance at home, choosing and adhering to the protocols of evidence-based treatment recommendations, and educating to dispel head lice myths. The education mission of schools will be supported by implementing evidence-based policies and strategies under the guidance of the school nurse. The burden of unnecessary absenteeism to the students, families, and communities far outweighs the perceived risks associated with head lice.
American Nurses Association & National Association of School Nurses. (2011). School nursing: Scope and standards of practice (2nd ed.). Silver Spring, MD: Nursesbooks.org.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013a). Head lice information for schools. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/head/schools.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013b). Parasites – lice – head lice - treatment. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/head/treatment.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013c). Biology. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/head/biology.html
Devore, C., Schutze, G., & The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council On School Health and Committee on Infectious Diseases. (2015). Head lice, Pediatrics. 135(5), e1355-e1365. Doi:10.1542/eds.2015-0746
Gordon, S. (2007). Shared vulnerability: A theory of caring for children with persistent head lice. The Journal of School Nursing, 23(5), 283-294.
Frankowski, B.L., & Bocchini, J.A. (2010). Clinical report-head lice. Pediatrics, 126(2) 392-403. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/126/2/392
Hansen, R., & O’Haver, J. (2004). Economic considerations associated with Pediculus humanus capitis infestation. Clinical Pediatrics, 43(6), 523-527.
Meinking, T., & Taplin, D. (2011). Infestations. In L. Schachner, & R. Hansen (Eds.). Pediatric dermatology (pp. 1525-1583). Philadelphia, PA: Mosby Elsevier.
Meinking, T., Serrano, L., Hard, B., Entzel, P. Lemard, G., & Villar, M. (2002). Comparative in vitro pediculicidal efficacy of treatments in a resistant head lice population in the United States. Archives of Dermatology, 138(2), 220-224.
Pollack, R., Kiszewski, A., & Spielman, A. (2000). Over diagnosis and consequent mismanagement of head louse infestations in North America. Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, 19(8), 689-693.
Pontius, D. (2014). Demystifying pediculosis: School nurses taking the lead. Pediatric Nursing, 40(5), 226-235.Retreived from https://www.pediatricnursing.net/ce/2016/article4005226235.pdf
Yoon, K., Previte, D., Hodgdon, H., Poole, B, Kwon, D., El-Ghar, G., Clark, M. (2014). Knockdown resistance allele frequencies in North American head louse (Anoplura: Pediculidae) populations. Journal of Medical Entomology, 51(2), 450-457. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1603/ME13139
Acknowledgement of Authors:
Suzanne Smith, BSN, RN, NCSN
Nichole Bobo, MSN, RN
Kathy M. Strasser, MS, RN, NCSN
Kathey M. Haynie, MSN, RN
Revised: 2004, January 2011, January 2016
This document replaces the position statement titled Pediculosis Management in the School Setting, 2011.
Suggested citation: National Association of School Nurses. (2016). Head Lice Management in the School Setting (Position Statement). Silver Spring, MD: Author.
All position statements from the National Association of School Nurses will automatically expire five years after publication unless reaffirmed, revised, or retired at or before that time.