Claim That Teen Selfies Cause Head Lice Epidemic May Be Nonsense
February 25, 2014

Claim That Teen Selfies Cause Head Lice Epidemic May Be Nonsense

[ Watch the Video: Do Selfies Spread Lice? ]

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Posing with your friends for a selfie may seem harmless enough, but at least one expert suggests that such innocent behavior could be more harmful than one may think. While teens everywhere smoosh their heads together to get the perfect picture, they could be unleashing an army of head lice upon each other’s scalps.

This is the claim of lice-treatment expert Mary McQuillan, who heads two Nitless Noggins treatment centers in California. According to McQuillan, a dramatic uptick in the incidence of lice among the younger generation is due to heads being mashed together to grab that selfie.

"Head lice are spread through head-to-head contact. Lice don't jump or fly, so you actually have to touch heads," said McQuillan in a statement Monday. "Every teen I've treated, I ask about selfies, and they admit that they are taking them every day."

McQuillan said she has seen a huge increase in lice in teens. Usually, lice is more common in younger children, because they are at a higher risk of head-to-head contact. But now, teens are mashing their heads together for selfie shots.

In an interview with SFist, McQuillan said she has seen a tenfold jump in business over the past few years, which coincides with selfies, which have been quickly becoming viral since about 2010.

"Here's the problem," she explains to SFist, "we're getting more of the high school and college kids than middle schoolers."

"Every teen I've treated, I ask about selfies, and they admit that they are taking them every day...I think parents need to be aware, and teenagers need to be aware too. Selfies are fun, but the consequences are real," she added.

McQuillan’s theory led to an alarming amount of media attention on Monday, with the story going viral. However, CNET questioned the validity of the claims and reached out to another lice expert to seek some truth.

"That makes a lot of sense. In order to get it, you have to be direct contact -- sitting on the same towel, sharing headphones together, or using someone else's hair curler, sharing hats, sweaters, and scarves," Vanessa Mor, supervisor at Lice Control in Oakland, Calif., told CNET’s Michael Fracno.

Mor said she has seen an increase in lice among teens and young adults in her area, although made no specific connection to selfies.

While lice need head-to-head contact for transmission, the amount of time a typical selfie sitting occurs is generally too short of a period for widespread transmission, Dr. Nick Celano, a resident in dermatology at USC Medical Center.

"The way we're taught," Celano said of his medical schooling, "is that it takes contact for an extended period of time, and 10 seconds is not what I'd consider an extended period of time. We're in rooms with patients that have lice, and we don't really worry about getting it transmitted from one person to the other while in the room."

While Celano doesn’t know the exact amount of time heads need to be in close contact for lice transmission to occur, he said it is much more common for lice to spread through the sharing of combs, hats and bedding. Of course, he does not go as far as saying the selfie theory is nonsense, either.

Celano said that until expert research can make a definitive claim on whether selfies are good or bad for lice transmission, it may be a good idea to keep your heads apart when snapping a selfie with friends.

Dr. Richard Pollack, of Harvard School of Public Health, sat down with NBC News to discuss the issue.

“This is a marketing ploy, pure and simple,” said Dr. Pollack, who also runs a pest identification business called IdentifyUS. “Wherever these louse salons open a new branch, there always seems to be an epidemic. It’s good for business.”

While reliable data on how many people get head lice each year in the US is unavailable, it is estimated that between six and 12 million infestations occur each year among children between the ages of three and 11, according to the CDC.

Pollack claims there is no evidence to show there is an uptick in head lice in the US and has pointed to a few reasons why selfie lice transmission in teens and young adults is unlikely:

Lice transmission in teens is nearly non-existent because teens almost never have it – it is most common in children up to fourth grade. And lice is spread via “direct and prolonged head-to-head contact.” While it is theoretically possible for teens to spread lice via a selfie shot, the theory that it is occurring now is extremely rare and unlikely; the idea that it is considered a widespread problem is “ridiculous.”

Pollack believes that more often than not, parents tend to mistake dandruff for lice. He told NBC News that the bigger problem is businesses charging concerned parents big bucks to rid children of lice they most likely do not have.

“I’m trying to prevent people from over-treating,” he said. “People should not be using insecticides on their kids unless there really is a reason to use them.”

For parents who have legitimate claims that their children have head lice, simple home treatments can effectively remove the tiny pests more inexpensively than seeing a so-called lice expert. Shampoos for lice treatment are available at pharmacies, as well as lice combs that remove the critters from hair. If home treatment is unsuccessful, then seeing a licensed dermatologist and getting a prescribed medication may be necessary.