Utah students are pulling their hair out over more than just teachers and homework. This is the season when head lice are causing the scratching of heads in schoolrooms across the state.

The annual outbreak, which continues through the winter months, has prompted many schools to send home notices alerting parents to the persistent pests."The schools have found it easier to aggressively attack the first cases of infestation and notify parents to screen children and properly treat them," said state epidemiologist Craig Nichols. "That's much easier than allowing the outbreak to continue until schools have a large number of students infected."

Lice are dependent on human blood to survive. They transfer from human host to host through infested clothing. Winter hats and coats, hung closely together, accelerate the insects' spread from student to student.

"It's easy to diagnose an outbreak of lice in the schools because children simply start scratching their heads," Nichols said.

That's when parents need to intervene.

According to Nichols, the best treatments for the parasites are specially medicated shampoos, available by prescription or over-the-counter. The medication is directed both at killing adult lice that can be seen in the hair, and nits, the small yellow or whitish egg sacs that are glued to the hair shaft close to the scalp.

Removing the pests is literally nitpicking: Removal requires pulling the nits along the entire length of the hair.

"It is very detailed, tedious work sometimes. For parents who have daughters with long hair, it can become a serious problem trying to get all the nits out," the health specialist said.

Ridding the house of a louse is also a laborious process.

Nichols said once a family member becomes infested, it's important that linen and bed clothing are laundered in hot soapy water to kill the adult lice or their eggs. Items that cannot be washed should be dry cleaned or bound in double plastic bags and left for 10 days. Lice or eggs on clothing will die during that period.

Needless to say, lice and nits are a nuisance. But according to Nichols, they are not a result of poor hygiene.

"People believe that if children have lice or hepatitis, they must be dirty or lacking in some type of hygienic practice," he said. "That absolutely is not true. Lice simply are interested in a nice warm body with blood. People who shower and wash their hair every day are just as susceptible to lice infestation as are people who are not as clean."

Neither, Nichols said, are lice dangerous. "They are simply a discomfort. Lice bites cause some minor irritation."

However, if a child infested with lice scratches his head excessively, he could get a secondary bacterial infection, which must be treated by a physician.