Selfies and smartphones blamed for rise in head lice among schoolchildren

Experts issue warnings about sharing of smartphone screens amid ‘major infestation’

Selfies and the sharing of smartphone screens are being blamed for an increase in nits and head lice among schoolchildren.

Head lice require head-to-head contact to spread and experts say this is happening more regularly as young people spend more time looking into screens together.

Pharmacist Caitriona O'Riordan of the Irish Pharmacy Union executive said that while head lice used to be an issue confined to pre-schools and primary schools, they are becoming a growing problem in secondary schools.

“Normally teenagers wouldn’t be [in] as close proximity to each other as primary school children, but selfies and smartphones have changed that,” she said.


Sinead O’Reilly, a specialist who deals with head lice in Rush, Co Dublin, said head lice are affecting up to 60 per cent of children in primary schools in her local area.

“There is a major infestation right now in our schools. Years ago, you may have seen breakouts at certain school times, but in the last number of years, head lice cases have been consistent,” she said.

“Children are spending more time together on play dates, hugging, touching heads taking selfies or looking into screens together. Head lice need head-to-head contact to be able to move from one host to another.”

The Irish Pharmacy Union estimates that about 10 per cent of children will have head lice between the ages of four and 16.

It does not have updated data to show if this has increased in recent years, though pharmacists anecdotally report a rise in demand for hair lice medication.

A 2017 study in the UK involving 200 children found 62 per cent who had a tablet or smartphone had picked up head lice in the past five years, compared with 29 per cent without.

Prevalence rates

The study also highlighted how the incidence of head lice was increasing, with 45 per cent of participants having had head lice at some point in the previous five years, compared with the 8 per cent prevalence rates in the past.

Dr Mary Casey of the UCD school of nursing, who has carried out research on head lice, said it was reasonable to assume that greater sharing of devices will increase the incidence.

“There is also a strong suggestion anecdotally that the lice are globally growing immune to the chemical [treatment] products due to overuse or misuse of these products – a bit like the situation with antibiotics and MRSA,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the HSE said that while there have been theories that the use of technology has increased the transmission of head lice, this had never been proven.

She said the UK statistics were based on a small study in a specific population, and more research in this area was needed.

Head lice are grey or brown insects that live close to the scalp. Nits are empty eggs left behind when lice hatch and can be white, yellow or brown.

Official advice to parents from the HSE is to check children’s hair every week with a “detection comb” and to use a medication lotion for treatment.

In recent times “delousing salons” have appeared in Dublin, Cork and elsewhere to help reluctant parents who cringe at the idea of picking out head lice one by one.

Ms O’Riordan said these salons were no more effective than medication lotions but were become more popular among some time-pressed parents.