Lice, a health hassle once easily banishable with over-the-counter treatments, has spawned a new and more powerful counterpart. ‘Super lice’ refers to a strain of lice that possesses an immunity to over-the-counter products. The result: An organism that physically looks like the lice of years past, but has proven to be much more stubborn to kill. Latest studies show at least 25 states are grappling with this growing health dilemma.
Lice is an itch-inducing, parasitic infection common in school-aged children, wherein lice infest the scalp and lay eggs (also known as nits) in an individual’s hair. Head lice is common among children thanks to close contact and sharing personal items, such as hats or pillows. Head lice and nits are found almost exclusively on the scalp, particularly around and behind the ears and near the neckline at the back of the head. According to the Centers for Disease Control, up to 12 million children in the U.S. fall prey to head lice each year.
The nits can be the most trying part of an infestation. Head lice nits can take up to 9 days to hatch, say experts. When a child contracts lice, the nits stubbornly stick onto the hair shaft and need to be completely picked off to totally eradicate an infestation.
Another consideration: Head lice tends to carry a stigma, explains Dr. Michael McKenna, pediatrician at Indiana University Health. “And it shouldn’t. Having [a lice infestation] doesn’t mean you’re dirty. It doesn’t mean you’re bad parents. It’s just something that happens. Head lice don’t cause disease or carry any risk of infection, but yes, they are itchy.”
Luckily, there are several measures parents can take to banish head lice for good.
First, Dr. McKenna says, parents should strip all bedding, small stuffed animals, hats, and anything that has come in contact with the child’s head. Toss old hairbrushes. These items should be washed and laundered in hot water and then dried on a high temperature for a prolonged period of time. Anything that can’t be washed (large stuffed animals, for instance) should be sealed (to suffocate the lice) in an airtight plastic bag for two full weeks.
While these items are being washed, parents should apply an over-the-counter hair treatment that contains the ingredient permethrin, to any infected household members, suggests Dr. McKenna. This ingredient, he says, has been shown to be one of the more effective lice-killing compounds in current over-the -counter products. That said, permethrin isn’t a sure-fire solution (a complete eradication of super lice cannot be guaranteed).
Other tips that may tip this tactic in your favor: If you’re using an OTC treatment, consider applying it a second time seven days later to ensure complete success. Why? Some therapies don’t kill all the eggs the first time, and those survivors will hatch about a week later. You also want to make sure you leave the treatment on long enough to do its job, follow the directions of the label. The reason: Sometimes therapies fail because they’re rinsed out too soon (the scent of lice-killing products is often pungent spurring parents and kids to want to wash it off swiftly).
That said, Dr. McKenna says the worries about “super lice” may be overstated. “Yes, it’s something to be a little worried about, but we do have other options,” he says. Although permethrin is the most effective ingredient, hot hair combs and even antibiotics have been shown to be effective in getting rid of a lice infestation. “When treatment doesn’t work we’ve had to use Bactrim (an antibiotic),” he says, which kills important gut bacteria that the louse needs to survive. Suction vacuums with high heat have also shown to be effective.
In the interim, children are advised to not share personal items like hats, hoodies, blankets, or pillows, especially if there is a known lice outbreak in your area.