Forget curriculum reform, teachers unions and cheating scandals. For many of the nation's parents, the biggest worry at the start of a new school year comes from a much tinier source: head lice.
School officials and medical professionals say the parasitic insects are a top fear for families with school-age children, mainly because parents get chills up their spines when they learn that their son or daughter is infested, despite the fact that lice do not spread disease and are more of an annoyance than a serious health threat.
A new iPhone app - "The Facts of Lice" - allows parents to track cases in their school districts. Launched by New Jersey-based Fairy Tales Hair Care, it's billed as "the first and only app to provide real-time alerts of lice outbreaks at the local level."
Since it was released two weeks ago, the free app has been downloaded at least 470 times.
While schools take cases seriously and typically require treatment for infested students, officials urge parents to remain calm and not overreact.
More often that not, however, lice outbreaks lead to panic and cause district phones to ring off their hooks with calls from freaked-out mothers and fathers.
"It's gross, so parents react kind of viscerally that [their children] have bugs in their hair," said Robin Wallin, health services coordinator with Alexandria Public Schools. "I've never had a parent cry when they find out their child has strep throat. But they cry routinely when they find out that their child has head lice."
Head lice infestations, most common in children ages 3 to 11, number an estimated 6 million to 12 million in the U.S. each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are typically spread through direct head-to-head contact or by students sharing hats, clothing, towels or combs.
Symptoms can include itching, irritability and difficulty sleeping, because the lice are most active in the dark. Scratching only compounds the problem because open sores on the head can lead to infection, according to the CDC.
Infestations are usually treated with over-the-counter medication, which can be administered by parents. That is usually adequate for districts to allow students to return to class.
Texas' school health policy, for example, states that infested students "are allowed to return to school after one medicated treatment has been given or [if] they bring a note from a physician stating they have been cleared to return."
But the reassurances of doctors and school officials often do little to lower the blood pressure of worried parents who have become convinced that lice infestations are matters of life and death, said Dr. Bernard Cohen, director of pediatric dermatology at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
"There's a head lice paranoia out there," he said. "When parents see it, they panic. It's not a reason to panic. Some of the mothers need to get a hobby."
Some mothers need not worry at all. Lice are found worldwide, but not everyone is equally susceptible. Black children are much less likely to get infested than white or Hispanic students. The reasons aren't fully understood, but the CDC posits that it may be because the louse's claws are better adapted to cling to certain types of hair shaft.
While schools traditionally are considered the most fertile breeding grounds for lice, Dr. Cohen said, the bugs can spread just as easily, if not more so, at home.
"There's going to be closer contact [with other people] at home than at school," he said, adding that preschools and day care centers also can be more problematic than the average elementary school.
Whether the infestation originated at home or at school, Dr. Cohen said, worrisome parents should rely on the wisdom and judgment of school nurses and pediatricians who are well-acquainted with lice and how to deal with infestation. A simple call to the nurse or visit to the doctor's office often can dispel misconceptions and put a mother's mind at ease.
"People fail to recognize that there are no serious infections transmitted by head lice," he said.
Another myth is that an infested child is dirty and parents need to keep closer tabs on their child's hygiene. But cleanliness - or the lack thereof - does not correlate with lice cases, according to the CDC. Lice, scientists say, are more attracted to clean scalps.
Since they're also spread from child to child, parents perhaps can find a silver lining in an infestation.
"It's just a sign that your kids are clean and they have friends," Ms. Wallin said.
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