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Selfies Causing Spike Of Nits In Adults

Head lice are an itchy nuisance among school-aged kids due to its spread via head-to-head contact, but experts say the rise of selfie culture is contributing to more nits reaching adults.

Head lice are small, wingless insects that live in the hair, often causing an itchy scalp and they can be difficult to eradicate.

It is very common in children, reaching as many of 60 percent of Aussie primary–school-aged children in some areas. Outbreaks have also been known to occur in schools and day care centres. 

While head lice can show up on the scalps of people of all ages and races, research has also found that females are twice more likely to be affected than males.

Historically, parents tend to see fewer breakouts of head lice as their kids get older, as they have less physical contact with peers. Cue the proliferation of smartphones.

The head louse (also known as Pediculus humanus capitis). Image: Getty

"We always get young children -- anyone who is shoulder to shoulder, heads to head absolutely," head lice specialist Turikatuku Alexander said.

But Alexander -- who has run a specialist head lice treatment clinic in western Sydney for more than a decade -- said her clientele is no longer just children and adults who care for or work with children.

"I think more selfies contribute to it -- it is definitely peaking at the moment -- we have had a big spike in people coming to us. Technology would be a part of it because we are seeing a lot of teens," she said.

She said she educates all of her clients about how easily lice can return, especially with head to head contact, but she thinks most are undeterred.

They are not going to stop, we all know that, people will do whatever it takes to get a good selfie. It's a good way of sharing the love around when it comes to head lice.
Public health experts say 'selfie culture', if part of the reason nits are more prevalent. Image: Getty Images

This view is echoed by Kristen Abrahams, who runs a head lice treatment salon in Sydney's inner west.

"One hundred percent selfie and phone use is contributing to more adults getting lice," Abrahams told 10 daily.

"This is because 98 percent of how you get head lice is through hair to hair contact, hence selfies and young girls cuddling. The other two percent is live lice that came off the head onto a hat, brush or bed sheets," she said.

And there's not just anecdotal evidence of this trend.

While lice are not exactly crawling out of your screen, a 2017 study found that if you use a smartphone or a tablet you are twice as likely to get head lice than those who don't.

The British study, which involved 200 children, revealed that 62 percent who used these gadgets had caught head lice in the past five years. For those who didn't use this technology, the rate was just 29 percent.

The results are telling. The research sample is small. However, as early as 2014 Russian authorities warned adolescents about taking group selfies, as they can pose a risk of spreading the parasites to other people within the group.

The look in the hair of the larvae and nits lice. Image: Getty Images

Dr Cameron Webb, who is an entomologist from NSW Health Pathology, said there is certainly merit to the technology-led lice spread argument.

"One of the key elements of headlice biology is they don't have wings and can't jump -- so it is only head to head contact that spreads them," Webb said.

This is why, he said, children are prime transmitters given the way they play and interact while learning.

"It is not unreasonable to think, as people get older, crowding around to look at iPhones and iPads, we are closer than we have traditionally been. So maybe it is not just selfies," he said.

But there's more to it, he argued.

 "It’s an interesting phenomenon that our behavior is contributing to a spread of head lice but I’m not 100 percent sure 'selfie culture' is necessarily driving increased rates in older people much more than a rise in insecticide resistance."

A 2016 study by the Journal of Medical Entomology found over-the-counter chemical treatments, such as malathion, permethrin and pyrethrin, have lost their potency.

Combing out is an essential part of stopping head lice infestations. Image: Getty Images

The research suggested that head lice are able to grow gene mutations, which helped in making them resistant to such insecticides.

"It's the way in which we use the products that is the problem, it's not necessarily overuse, or even the product itself. It is only effective if you do the whole process correctly," Webb said.

This means using the chemical lotion correctly and thoroughly, combing out the eggs and, more importantly, re-treating.

"A lot of the products -- despite what they might say in marketing -- they are not going to be 100 percent effective in one hit as you will need to re-treat again for whatever is hatched 7 to 10 days later.

"This is really important to eradicate that infestation".

Contact the author alattouf@networkten.com.au