Yuck! Head lice!

Friday, 1 February, 2013

People don’t like head lice! We all know this of course, but a paper just published in the February issue of the International Journal of Dermatology explores these feelings in a systematic way (Parison et al 2013).

Lead author on the study is Julie Parison at School of Public Health, Tropical Medicine and Rehabilitation Sciences, James Cook University and co-authors are Deon Canyon (now an Associate Professor at the University of Hawaii) and THS Director, Rick Speare.


Background:  Head lice are a source of amusement for outsiders and an embarrassing nuisance to those who have to deal with them. Our study collected the emotions experienced by people dealing with head lice. An area with extremely sparse literature, our purpose is to inform the development of more effective programs to control head lice.

Methods:  We asked “what were your feelings upon discovery of head lice?” as part of a study exploring the experience of those treating head lice. A short questionnaire was available via the authors’ head lice information internet site. A total of 294 eligible responses were collected over several months and analyzed, supported by QSR N6.

Results:  The predominantly female (90•9%) respondents were residents of Australia (56•1%), USA (20•4%), Canada (7•2%), or UK (4•4%), and working full-time (43•0%) or part-time (34•2%). Reactions and feelings fell into three categories: strong (n = 320; 79% of all stated emotions), mediocre (n = 56; 20%), and neutral (n = 29; 9•8%). There were no positive emotions.

Comment:  The significant negative reaction was expected. The range of feeling expressed demonstrates the stigma held for these ectoparasites within western market economies. This contrasts with conceptions of head lice in traditional societies where “nit picking” is often used as an opportunity for social bonding. The negative social effects of this perception create more problematic issues than pediculosis itself; these include quarantine, overtreatment, and a potentially negative psychological impact. Head lice control strategies and programs that address these negative emotional reactions may prove more effective than the current biomedical focus, which typically ignores the emotional aspects.

Head lice are so well adapted to humans that their pathological effects are minor: itch (in less than 50%), a papular rash, occasionally some cervical lymphadenopathy, and very rarely secondary infection associated with scratching. They don't even drink enough blood to cause anaemia. If you are into numbers, go to our head lice blood loss calculator.


Parison J, Speare R, Canyon DV. Head lice: the feelings people have. International Journal of Dermatology 2013;52(2):169–171. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-4632.2011.05300.x

Paper illustrating social bonding through pediculosis

Trigger DS. Blackfellows, whitefellows, and head lice. Australian Anthropology Society Conference, University of Sydney, 28-31 Aug 1979.

If you would like a PDF copy of Parison et al (2013), please contact Rick Speare.

Page by Rick Speare 1 February 2013