Experts Say Selfies Not Spreading Lice Among Teens

The story that teens were getting lice by taking too many selfies went viral on Monday. But is it true?

First, the source of the story. Marcy McQuillan, who offers lice removal services in Northern California, told SFist that she was seeing a “huge increase of lice in teens this year” because they are “sticking their heads together every day to take cellphone pics.”

This phenomenon is known as the “selfie,” a ritual practiced by everyone from the Pope to President Barack Obama.

Marcy Mcquillan, who owns a lice-removal salon in Los Gatos and Scotts Valley, said she's noticed an uptick in the number of teenagers with head lice.

She bases her theory on the observations and conversations with teenage clients who come to her salons to be deloused.

"We noticed them on their phones and got to talking to them about group selfies and started to wonder if that was causing the impact of the outbreak," McQuillan said.

It turns out, however, teens are probably not catching lice because of taking group photos.

“This is a marketing ploy, pure and simple,” Dr. Richard J. Pollack, who teaches at the Harvard School of Public Health and runs a pest identification business called IdentifyUS, told NBC News. “Wherever these louse salons open a new branch, there always seems to be an epidemic. It’s good for business. “

Daniel Wilson of the Alameda County Health Agency also is skeptical of McQuillan's theory.

"If you have a real heavy infestation it's going to come out in the picture," he said. "But a low-level infestation I don't think it would happen so casually."

Reliable data on how many people get head lice each year in the U.S. are not available; however, an estimated 6 million to 12 million infestations occur in the country each year among children 3 to 11 years of age, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pollack claimed that there was no evidence of an uptick in head lice in the U.S., either among teenagers or elementary school children. The reasons why contamination-by-selfie is unlikely, according to Pollack:

Teens almost never have head lice, meaning they are not likely to spread it, even if they are taking a lot of selfies. Lice is most common in children who are in kindergarten to fourth grade.
Lice is normally spread through “direct and prolonged head-to-head contact.” Yes, it’s theoretically possible for teens to spread lice by taking a selfie, but it would be an extremely rare occurrence. The idea of it happening enough to be considered a widespread problem is “ridiculous.”

Most often, Pollack said, what parents think are lice are often just dandruff or crumbs. The bigger problem? Businesses charging scared parents big bucks to rid children of non-existent head lice.

“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.”

NBC Bay Area's Terry McSweeney contributed to this report.

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