A ‘lousy’ topic (Part I)

The other day I noticed an interesting thread on a friend’s Facebook feed. There was a hot debate going on about head lice and a petition to ban infected children from school, like they do in the old country. The posts quickly became emotional and struck a chord with me. I guess it’s time for the disclaimer: I am not being remunerated by any organization in any way shape or form for this post. However, my wife Lisa has a major lice phobia, like major… major as in starting to look at Montreal properties for sale every time one of the minions gets it. And then there’s my mom; Lets just say growing up I was not allowed to use the “L-word” or drop the “L-bomb” for fear of my mother’s terrible fury.

So, although I have personally never been infested with the little bastards, I guess I wanted to come clean about my lice baggage.

And now for a little Q&A, so sit back and just try not to scratch.

What are lice exactly?

Pediculus humanus capitus is surprisingly not a spell studied at Hogwarts, but the common head louse. Lice are “ectoparasites” that live on the body. Different lice species prefer to “feed” on specific areas of the body hence Pediculosis corporis i.e body lice and Pediculosis pubis i.e. pubic lice, also affectionately known by the pet name “crabs.”

Lice have been with us for thousands of years; there are actual louse egg fossils dating back over ten thousand years. Some of the best preserved lice are those found with mummies!

Interestingly, head and body lice — both members of the Pediculus genus — are harbored by chimpanzees whereas pubic lice, a member of the Phthirus genus are harbored by gorillas as well.

So what you’re implying is…?

And moving right along…

What do lice eat?

Lice eat our blood, yes they suck our blood. These nasty mother suckers pierce the skin using a mouthpiece with six retractable hooklets. They inject their saliva into the host that causes itching. Lice feed about four — seven times per day for up to an hour each feed. L’chaim! Humans are the ONLY known host for the pediculus capitus species. They would literally rather die then be with anyone else… they’re the emo-bloodsuckers à la twilight.

How do lice breed?

Lice reproduce sexually. Copulation can occur as early as a few hours after birth. Mating can last for over an hour and a newborn louse can mate with a much older partner…Hello Mrs. Robinson.

What is a nit? Is it the same thing as an egg?

A female louse can hatch four to six eggs per day. The eggs are attached to the hair shaft and the females secrete a substance like glue that attaches the egg to the hair, covering it for protection, except for one area which allows the lice embryos to breathe. It takes a about a week for the eggs to hatch. Once hatched the empty “eggshell” is called a “nit”. However most people use the term “nits” to describe both eggs with and without louse embryos. Lice can survive away from their hosts, i.e us, for up to two days while nits can survive about a week.

How are lice transmitted between people?

Close contact with an infected person is the main way we catch lice. You know tons of kids in close quarters, swarming all over each other, i.e gan. Also sharing of hats, combs, blankets, closets and clothing all increase the risk of lice transmission. So yes, think again about taking that awesome selfie with your BFF.

Are rates of lice infestation in Israel higher then in North America?

Yes. A study done in Bet Shemesh a few years ago showed about 50% of children between 4-14 had signs of lice infestation. Other cities quoted in the study were Jerusalem at up to 15% and Be’ersheva with about 30%. Although hard numbers and reliable data is hard to come by, it is believed that the USA has a rate of closer to 10%.

Why is lice so much more common in Israel compared to the USA or Canada or England or France or Spain or Italy or… sigh…?

Hey, at least we beat Nigeria! Go us! The reasons are likely multifactorial and include a lackadaisical attitude to lice infestation, closer contact between children, more communal living, younger children being sent to daycare, that kid totally infested sitting next to my daughter…. Warmer weather is also more conducive to the louse life cycle. It is interesting to note that girls have higher lice infestation rates then boys likely due to social norms of closer contact, more sharing of hats and combs etc… hair length is NOT thought to be a factor, although it can make combing easier.

Are lice dangerous?

I guess the real question is: Can one get a serious disease from head lice? The answer is no. Head lice are not a vector for any disease. The only issue is getting a secondary infection from scratching. Head lice are a nuisance, and to be honest, pretty damn gross but in the end they are essentially harmless.

Well there you have it, probably TMI for anyone about head lice. In part II I will discuss the various treatment methods and their efficacy as well as how I feel about the proposed ban.

About the Author
David Zlotnick is a proud Canadian and even prouder Israeli who made Aliyah with his family from Montreal. David is a specialist in both family and emergency medicine and is currently the co-medical director of TEREM's urgent care clinics across Israel. David holds positions in the ER at Share Zedek in Jerusalem as well as the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. Before making Aliyah David worked in Quebec's arctic region with Inuit and native populations. He enjoys giving out free wine advice, running to music he wouldn't be caught dead listening to otherwise, and would often rather be fishing.