“They may not have a little red cape but super lice are pretty powerful. SCIEPRO/Getty/Howstuffworks
Super lice might be more popular if they flew around in capes saving the people of Earth from certain doom, a la Superman, but as of right now, they’re near the top of most people’s “ick” list. The human population’s very rational distaste for the scalp-obsessed little critters was amplified in 2015 by research findings that nearly all U.S.-based lice are now drug-resistant, meaning that they are too tough to be felled by certain treatments (hence, the “super lice” title). The news has only become direr since the initial presentation of the findings.
“We’ve collected now about 138 collection sites (since the initial report’s 109) and many different samples,” explains Kyong Sup Yoon, Ph.D., lead researcher and assistant professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. “We came out with 98.3 percent resistance allele (versions of a gene).” So, um … almost all lice are immune to the effects of drugs specifically designed to banish them from our scalps?
Panic! Discord! Zombie apocalypse!
Cool your jets, folks. Although it’s certainly not good news, pharmaceutical companies are on the ball developing new options to treat the little buggers. “There are some new chemicals that came out about two years ago,” Dr. Yoon soothes. “Several clinical trials are going on now in terms of developing new products.”
The lice examined in this study had gene mutations linked to resistance of pyrethroids, a type of insecticide commonly used to keep insects at bay. Permethrin, the active ingredient in many available lice treatments, is part of the pyrethroid family. The National Pediculosis Association (NPA), a group dedicated to scabies and lice-related issues, urges people with lice to choose the newest, safest options on the market.
While using a shampoo can help, it’s necessary to first comb and pick (gag!) your way through the hair to remove the bugs and their evil little eggs, otherwise the whole vicious cycle will start all over again. The NPA recommends using the LiceMeister comb.
Amanda* (name changed to avoid embarrassing her tween daughter), of Kennesaw, Georgia, didn’t have the luxury of time and patience when lice struck her 8-year-old for the first time mere hours before a family vacation to Disney World in September 2015. Rather than chance it with store-bought products, she hustled over to the professional lice removal experts at Lousy Endings in Marietta, Georgia.
“When I saw those tiny bugs in my baby’s hair, I started bawling because I knew (from friends) that it was extremely time-consuming and expensive to treat,” Amanda recounts in an email. “We all have long, curly, thick hair and I knew it’d take forever to search our scalps thoroughly. (Not to mention how dirty it made us all feel!)”
Although over-the-counter options are available, Amanda shelled out the extra cash (about $160) to save the vacation and give her extra peace of mind. “I was glad to have a second set of eyes to guarantee that it was eradicated,” she explains.
Indeed, Yoon recommends getting an expert opinion (pediatrician or dermatologist) when facing a lice infestation. “They know better what’s going on in your community, so they will know what to do if you go talk to them,” he advises.
Treatment isn’t just limited to combs and meds, however. Amanda washed all the clothes, bedding and even the stuffed animals. When her family returned from their vacation, she vacuumed everything for “dead eggs” and cleaned the house again, just to be safe. (The NPA says that vacuuming is the best thing to do, along with putting linens and stuffed toys in the dryer for 30 minutes.)
Now, Amanda’s family is extra vigilant about avoiding high-risk situations like school coat hooks, shared headphones (which she thinks is how the lice was spread), hats, headbands and helmets. Super lice might not have one specific kryptonite, but they’re not making their way back into Amanda’s home, if she has anything to say about it.
Now That’s Cool
Think all lice are created equal? Think again! If you have to buddy up to either body or head lice, choose the head variety. “Head lice are very similar to body lice, but body lice transmit disease, like typhus,” Dr. Yoon explains, adding that it’s surprising that head lice don’t do the same since they share the same genome, making them virtually identical species.