(Leonardo Patrizi/iStock)

As if you didn't have enough to worry about with the new school year starting, now there's this: "Selfie lice." In recent days, the Interwebs have been abuzz with fear over the latest scourge to hit our borders and it has to do with social media and those pesky little critters that tend to latch onto kids' hair.

The concern is that gaggles of tweens and teens with smartphones are touching heads while snapping and sharing pictures of themselves which is causing a rise in lice transmissions.

No one seems to know where the idea originated, but some point to the selfie-seen-around-the-world that Ellen Degeneres took at last year's Oscars. That led to snarky comments online about how  close those beautiful heads -- Jennifer Lawrence! Brad Pitt! Julia Roberts! Bradley Cooper! -- appeared to be to each other and speculation about what might happen if any one of them had lice.

Everyone seemed to have forgotten about this for a while but as the summer ended and people began to think about school again, comments from a pediatrician in Wisconsin who spoke about seeing a rise in lice cases among teens went viral. Soon, experts from across the country, from cities big and small, were weighing in and saying that they, too, were alarmed about selfie lice.

[The future of mutating, treatment-resistant head lice is already here]

It sounds bad but there's no need to panic. Let's separate fact from fiction. First, experts say transmitting lice while taking a selfie is technically possible, but since lice cannot fly or jump, they'd have to crawl, and that can take a while, so you'd probably have to be head-to-head with your gal pal for longer than a few seconds.


This image released by Ellen DeGeneres shows actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyong’o Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a "selfie" portrait on a cellphone during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on March 2, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Ellen DeGeneres via AP)

Second, there aren't any official numbers or peer-reviewed journal articles to back up this idea. In fact, the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show that 6 million to 12 million infestations occur each year among children 3 to 11 years of age, preschool-age to fourth grade -- most of whom are too young to have cellphones.

Richard J. Pollack of the Harvard School of Public Health made the good point to NBC News that teens rarely have lice so they're unlikely to spread it even if they are touching heads all the time. And the National Pediculosis Association, which advocates against pesticide treatments for lice, told the Huffington Post that even if there are some outbreaks among older kids, this happens sometimes so it's "not new or alarming."

I asked Lauren Salzberg, a 47-year-old mother of three who runs a lice treatment service in Potomac, Md., her views, and she said she agrees that selfie lice isn't the big deal everyone's making it out to be. However, she said she believes technology in general does play a big role.

"So many kids are drawn to activities where they hover together around a screen -- a computer or iPad -- and their heads are touching. They are in this environment more rather than being outside on the fields where they are further apart," she explained. Salzberg also said she's seen cases of kids with lice who suspected it came from sharing headphones.

Two lice viewed under an electron microscope. Note the claws used to grasp onto individual hairs. (Credit: CDC)
Two lice viewed under an electron microscope. Note the claws used to grasp onto individual hairs. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Salzberg said the bigger problem facing parents this school year is what the media have dubbed "super lice."

A study presented  this month at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society showed that all but five samples collected across 30 states appeared to have high resistance to pyrethroids, the active ingredient to in many over-the-counter treatments.

While alternative chemical treatments are available, Salzberg -- who has treated more than 700 families since January -- said that nothing compares to manual removal for effectiveness and safety. It doesn't cost a whole lot, either.

"We tell parents if they have to buy one school supply buy a professional-grade lice comb and get into the habit of routinely checking your child. That way you be proactive and stay head of the game," she said. And you don't need to worry about those selfies, iPads or headphones.

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