Back-To-School Critters: Combating Treatment-Resistant “Super Lice”

Aug 15, 2016

“Super lice" are resistant to traditional over-the-counter treatments, but a Utah scientist has developed a non-chemical based technology that can help people fight these irritating pests.
Credit medlineplus.gov

Back-to-school jitters are in the air, but what about back-to-school critters that can make a home in your hair? Head lice--- a word particularly dreaded among parents of school-age children.

"98% of head lice in the United States now carry gene mutations for pesticide resistance." -Claire Roberts, CEO of Lice Clinics of America

“Oh no, not us! Gross!” Misty Herbstritt, mother of three, shuddered when asked what came to mind when she heard the word lice. It seemed the question brought back her recent experience of going head-to-head with the annoying insects.

Although head lice do not carry any diseases, there is a social stigma attached and humans are eager to remove the pests. Traditional over-the-counter treatments, however, are becoming problematic, because lice have developed resistance to the poisons used to kill them. These resistant lice have been dubbed “super lice.”

“A report recently published in the Journal of Medical Entomology showed 98% of head lice in the United States now carry gene mutations for pesticide resistance. That’s up from 37% in 2001, so you can see the trend,” said Claire Roberts, CEO of Lice Clinics of America. “Almost all head lice cannot be killed with OTC pesticide shampoos.”

Prescription treatments are still highly effective, but most long-term attempts at chemical pest management eventually fail due to evolved pesticide resistance. Ultimately, the poison has to be changed or a non-chemical approach employed.

Lice Clinics of America, also referred to as urgent care centers for lice, use a non-chemical treatment. The technology, developed by Dr. Dale Clayton at the University of Utah, uses heated air to dehydrate and kill hatched lice and their eggs. The FDA-cleared medical device is called AirAllé.

“Lice can’t develop resistance to heated air. The secret sauce is that the heated air needs to be just the right temperature and air flow. The air is delivered underneath the hair next to the scalp, in the area where the eggs are laid,” said Roberts.  

The device itself might remind people of a large hair dryer.

“A traditional hair dryer doesn’t work though, because you’re blowing air on top of the hair, matting it down, and actually protecting the eggs. A person’s head would also burn before killing the lice,” Roberts said.

Lice Clinics of America have conducted hundreds of thousands of treatments with the AirAllé. The treatments are 99% effective according to Roberts. She was also excited to report that an at-home heated-air device will soon be available.

Herbstritt, the mom of three, who recently experienced her first bout of lice, initially purchased a traditional OTC treatment. After reading the  instructions, she became concerned about using the chemical-based product on her daughter and wasn’t even sure it would be effective. She opted to go to the Lice Clinic of America in Utah and compared the experience to a very nice head massage.

“To have a place you can walk in and they say, ‘Oh cool, you have lice, let’s take care of it’ versus ‘Ew, stay away’ was very nice. [Lice is] part of having kids, it’s part of being alive,” she said. "It was fabulous to have a fun environment to treat a not so fun situation.”

Additional information: Lice Clinics of America has a facility in Murray, Utah. Their contact number is: 801-707-0232.

Journal Reference: Kyle J. Gellatly, Sarah Krim, Daniel J. Palenchar, Katie Shepherd, Kyong Sup Yoon, Christopher J. Rhodes, Si Hyeock Lee, J. Marshall Clark. Expansion of the knockdown resistance frequency map for human head lice (Phthiraptera: Pediculidae) in the United States using quantitative sequencing. Journal of Medical Entomology, 2016; 53 (3). DOI: 0.1093/jme/tjw023.