Are Selfies Causing A Head Lice Epidemic?
February 28, 2014

Are Selfies Causing A Head Lice Epidemic?

American children and teenagers, and very possibly children and teenagers across the world, are the victims of a terrible public health crisis, caused by the latest of Satan’s works: the selfie. That’s what some would have you believe, anyway.

There is a growing debate about whether an increase in the prevalence of head lice among young people is due to them touching their heads together to take photographs on smartphones and other portable devices, in the phenomenon recently awarded them the name ‘selfies.’ This allows the lice to move from an infested head to a friend’s head, something which is difficult for them to do when heads are not touching.

This does sound a lot like a case of trying to find something that young people do to be a cause of something bad, in order to demonize it. Even if it is something we shouldn’t particularly think of as harmful, like taking a photograph of ourselves with our friends. For some reason, new trends really gets up some people’s noses (or in their hair), and they love to ‘find out’ that actually the mischief is punishable by some misfortune. In this case, head lice.

I remember when I was at school, just about, and head lice were a feature of everyday life. We had a dedicated nurse who would sift through our hair like a judgmental chimpanzee, and kids would run around the schoolyard shouting ‘he’s got nits, he’s got nits!’ as a common insult. As a general, common insult, I should add; it wasn’t always aimed at me. No it wasn’t. It wasn’t! Nits are the dead eggs left by head lice, the casing with no embryos (not the head lice themselves, as many people believe). There were no selfies in those days, and the only time we had photos taken with friends at school was when a professional photographer turned up once or twice a year with a camera the size of a house. What explained the ever-presence of lice in those days?

Then again, it does seem plausible. If lice do indeed move from head to head when we touch them together, then the selfie phenomenon would make it easier for them to do so. Some say the recent upsurge may be due to drug resistance or less attention paid than, say, when I was at school. But there is currently division on the issue, and the debate is raging.

The suggestion originally came, according to CNET, from Marcy McQuillan, a lice-treatment expert who runs two ‘Nitless Noggins’ lice-treatment centers in California. Some experts have upheld the claim, such as Vanessa Mor, supervisor at Lice Control in Oakland, California, who said, “That makes a lot of sense. In order to get it, you have to be in direct contact — sitting on the same towel, sharing headphones together, or using someone else’s hair curler, sharing hats, sweaters, and scarves.” Meanwhile, Dr. Nick Celano, a resident in dermatology at the Los Angeles + USC Medical Center, is on the fence. He says that it probably takes longer than the length of time a selfie takes for the lice to transfer, but that the theory is an interesting one.

Others, though, have dismissed it as a cynical marketing ploy from the nit busting company that McQuillan runs. This includes Dr. Richard J. Pollack of the Harvard School of Public Health, who says: “Wherever these louse salons open a new branch, there always seems to be an epidemic. It’s good for business.”

One thing I haven’t heard mentioned in the media yet is the fact that if the nit-busting salon really did believe that selfies were causing the problem, they wouldn’t point it out, because this would eliminate the cause of the increase and therefore eliminate potential customers. Unless they just want people to think they might have lice because of their dangerous selfie addiction, and come in for an expensive consultation. I need to look more into the seedy world of head lice salons. Until then, in the name of God, don’t take any chances.

One final thought: I wonder if President Obama has been checked for lice since his selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral with the leaders of the UK and Denmark.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on

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