Disturbing Results Link Head Lice Chemical to Childhood Behavior Problems

Battling a lice infestation with your child is difficult enough. However, new and disturbing results make this common childhood problem even more concerning for parents. In research published by the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine, there appears to be a link between elevated levels of pyrethoids (found in many chemical-based lice treatments) in children and atypical behaviors in children that are signs of neurodevelopmental abnormalities.

What are pyrethoids?

Insecticides, and associated controversies, have been around for decades. Pyrethoids are common ingredients of head lice treatments and some formulas of mosquito repellents. These synthetic chemicals target the nerves of insects and are potentially fatal to the insects in certain doses and combinations with other ingredients.

Known by the generic name of Permethrin, many common chemical based over-the-counter head lice treatments include this ingredient. It is often in the form of a cream rinse, both attacking the nervous system of adult lice and negatively affecting the development of the lice eggs.

What does the research say about pyrethoids?

head lice chemicalsThe recent study published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine shows a correlation between the use of pyrethoids and a range of behavioral issue noted in children. This study is preliminary, but aligns with other research that looks at the connections between pesticide exposures and health issues in toddlers through adolescents, including instances of ADHD, pediatric cancer, and atypical/abnormal mental and behavioral development.

The focus of the Occupational & Environmental Medicine study was the behavior measurement of children at 6 years of age exposed to pyrethoids during development from the stages of their mothers’ pregnancy through age 6. Researchers measured the levels of five different pyrethoid metabolites in the urine of expectant mothers and then in the urine of those children up to age 6 to determine if any links exist between exposure and neurodevelopment abnormalities.

Approximately 300 women were involved in the study, and the research included psychologists visiting the homes of these families to assess behaviors of the children, take samples from the home of air quality/dust, and take urine samples from the study participants. The behavior studies examined characteristics and qualities such as:

  • The social skills of the children
  • The abilities of the children to communicate problems and request help
  • Evidence of defiance and disruptive behaviors

Of the five different prethoid metabolites tested for in the mothers and children, three of them were the most prevalent.

  • trans-DCCA
  • cis-DBCA
  • cis-DCCA

Depending upon the pyrethoid most noticeable in the urine of the test subjects, the results ranged from increased risks of having lower than average social skills for 6-year-olds to higher incidences of defiant and disruptive behaviors.

The overall results showed that those children who tested positive for the highest levels of pyrethoids in their urine were more likely to have atypical behaviors – as much as three times more abnormal – than noted in children with statistically low measurements in their systems. Analysis by researchers concluded that neurochemical changes in the brain could be linked with pyrethoid exposure.

What do I need to know before treating my child for head lice?

Yes – these finding can be unnerving for parents. The findings of this recent studies and others looking at the effects of pyrethoids on the health of children are not conclusive enough to make definitive changes across the insecticide board. While there is a correlation, it is still unknown whether or not the pyrethoids cause the conditions, such as ADHD, or whether those children who have high levels of pyrethoids and behavior issues have another common trait responsible for the latter.

treat children for head lice

So – what is a parent to do? One of the most important and valuable things a parent can do when treating a child for head lice is to be aware of the treatment options. This includes being aware of the concerns which are connected to ingredients and creams, including Permethrin.

Estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are that as many as 12 million children are affected by head lice each year in the United States. The numbers are even higher in some other parts of the world. To treat these large numbers of individuals affected by head lice, the pharmaceutical market produces an array of OTC treatments and some prescription options. While these are options for some families, it is important to note two things:

  • There is increasing evidence of resistance to these chemical insecticides, rendering them less effective and requiring them in increased amounts.
  • There are other options.

What are the other options?

You can take a combined approach that uses a nit comb, lubricants to smother the lice, shampoos with natural ingredients to treat infestations, and follow-up steps to prevent further infestations. And all of this can be done without the use of chemicals such as pyrethoids.

nit comb against liceA nit comb grabs the lice eggs, which are attached to the shafts of hair with a strong glue-like substance, and helps you gently pull these from your child’s hair.

A good nit comb should be made with very small grooves to catch the nits and of a material that will withstand the usage and cleaning necessary (such as stainless steel). Natural oils such as coconut can act as a smothering agent to kill or at least slow down the lice during treatment.

For treatment options that stay away from the harsh chemical ingredients like pyrethoids, look for products such as ClearLice products that use a combination of natural enzymes. The unique formula of ClearLice products attacks lice and nits quickly – and efficiently – and does not leave you with the worry associated with potentially dangerous chemicals. The use the properties of essential oils, botanicals, and other natural ingredients to ward attack the adult lice and reduce the nit populations.

These types of products are also more environmentally-friendly than those such as Permethrin, and are safe to use around your pets as well. Preventative treatment products, also free of the harsh chemicals, can help to limit the need for future head lice treatments.

Treating your child for head lice is one of those parenting activities that might not be enjoyable, but just must be done. However, you do not have to add on the extra worry of treating your child with potentially damaging chemicals. From initial treatments to preventative measures, and steps in between such as washing the bedding, look for options that get the job done and let you sleep more peacefully at night.