Head lice are most common in children under the age of 10, but Marcy McQuillan, owner of Nitless Noggins, a California center that treats head lice, said she has seen an alarming 50% increase in cases among high school aged kids since 2012.
She suspects selfies have caused the increase of teenagers getting lice, because the pest is transferred through head-to-head contact, which is common when kids take photos together.
"Lice crawl from one head to the next — all they need is a hair to latch onto," McQuillan told BuzzFeed Monday.
But Richard Pollack, an instructor at Harvard who specializes in pest problems, said the claim that selfies are causing teenagers to get head lice "doesn't make any sense from a scientific standpoint."
Pollack told BuzzFeed prolonged head-to-head contact would be needed for lice to transfer from one person to the next. While it is possible to transmit lice through brief contact, he said it is more likely a person would acquire lice by putting their head close to another person's while listening to music and sharing earbuds, reading a book while laying in the grass, or sharing the same bed.
It's "marketing fluff," Pollack said of McQuillian's assertion.
In general, head lice are rare, Pollack said, with an average of one child in a group of 100 between kindergarten and fourth grade having head lice, and the number of head lice cases after fifth grade dropping dramatically. He said it is extremely uncommon for teenagers to get head lice and there is not currently an outbreak.
Pollack also runs the website IdentifyUS, which diagnoses head lice through a physical or photographed specimen that can be sent in. He said it is common for people to misdiagnose head lice, with people often sending samples of ticks, bed bugs, ants, flies, and even dandruff.
McQuillian's clinic treats head lice on children over age 4 with a device called AirAllé, which uses heat to kill lice and their eggs. Afterward, the dead remains are manually removed from one's hair. Heat activated devices are used by clinics like Nitless Noggins across the U.S.
While heat-activated devices like the AirAllé are FDA approved, they are more expensive than other treatments, such as using a head lice comb to manually remove lice or over-the-counter hair products.