Avoiding Head Lice at Summer Camp


Chris Iliades, MD

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When you picture your child at summer camp, you probably envision him or her sailing or swimming, not scratching away from head lice. But according to the American Camp Association, head lice is one of the most common problems for camps. If you get a call from camp telling you your child has head lice, don’t feel like you're a bad parent for picking that camp, and don’t assume it’s a dirty camp.

Your child could be the cleanest camper at the cleanest camp and still get head lice if another camper brought them along to camp. Head lice have been around for thousands of years, so they know how to get around. In fact, about six to 12 million kids get head lice every year. Head-to-head contact is the most common way lice are spread, so the close quarters living at camp are head lice heaven.

Head Lice Basics

Here is what every parent should know about head lice:

  • Head lice are tiny, parasitic, blood-sucking insects that look like sesame seeds to the naked eye. As they feed, their color can change from clear to tan to reddish brown.

  • A female louse on a human scalp will lay about six eggs a day, which she cements to the hair shafts. The eggs, called nits, look like little bits of dandruff, but they stick tightly to hair.

  • Head lice don’t jump or fly. But they are good crawlers and avoid light, so they may be harder to see than their eggs.

  • Head lice may cause an itchy scalp, especially in their favorite places at the nape of the neck and behind the ears. Although scratching could cause a scalp infection, head lice themselves do not cause any disease.

  • There are several options for treatment, including prescription and over-the-counter lotions, creams, and shampoos. Regular shampooing won’t get rid of lice. It may take more than one treatment, and your child is not in the clear until you don't see any lice or nits for two weeks.

  • Lice don’t live long off the scalp, so you don’t need to fumigate your house. You can sanitize items that could harbor lice, such as hats, clothing, and bedding, by a hot washing and drying.

  • Head lice don’t live on pets.

Getting Ready for Camp

Since head lice and kids at camp are a hazardous mix, you should ask your child’s camp about their head lice policy. Every camp should have one. Here is what you want to know:

  • Do you need to get your child checked for head lice before leaving for camp? Many camps require a head lice check from a qualified caregiver before allowing a child to attend.

  • What does the camp do to prevent head lice? Some camps screen children for lice at camp. They may also encourage children not to share items, such as clothing, hats, combs and brushes, helmets, and towels. Camps may even ask kids not to leave their clothes in piles on the floor and to keep beds separated by several feet.

  • What happens if your child gets head lice at camp? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children should be treated and returned to their group. Some camps are prepared to do this. Other camps may call you and ask you to come get your child. They may not let your child back until a qualified caregiver clears your child.

  • What happens if another child gets head lice at camp? Most camps will want to check all the children who have had close contact with the camper. Find out if anyone will notify you. Also, make sure that the camp will do its best not to cause shame or embarrassment to any camper with lice or exposure to lice.

Lice don’t care how well groomed your child is. They are equal opportunity parasites. Know the camp’s head lice policy, and make sure you are comfortable with it before sending your child to the camp. Warn your child to avoid sharing clothing, bedding, headgear, and headphones.

Key Takeaways

Head lice are a common problem at summer camp.

  • Any child can get head lice if another child brings them into camp.

  • Camps should have a clear head lice policy; make sure you know the details.

  • Find out if you need to have your child checked for head lice before camp.

  • Make sure your child knows how head lice spread.

  • Tell your child not to share clothing or other items that could carry head lice at camp.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jul 28, 2017

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View Sources

Medical References

  1. Lice-Free, Happy Campers! American Camp Association. http://www.acacamps.org/marketplace/camps/product-spotlight/lice-free-happy-campers
  2. Management of Head Lice. University of Kentucky - College of Agriculture. http://www2.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef607.asp
  3. Treating Head Lice. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm171730.htm

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