The History of the Superbug and the Origin of SuperLice

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For parents with young children, lice are something that’s no joke.  They’re a source of dread for parents, almost to the point of paranoia.  While worrying over whether or not their children might catch lice is aggravating enough, now parents have to face an even more daunting dilemma: lice super strains and their treatment.

How Have Lice Grown Stronger?

Before you start worrying about some kind of new, science-fiction-like lice species spreading across the nation, know that lice are still lice – they’re just a little stronger now.  These bugs aren’t necessarily a health risk to anyone, as they’re not known to be carriers of any kind of disease, but they can irritate the skin which, with vigorous scratching, could become infected.  More than anything, though, lice are just a nuisance, and one that’s getting more difficult to eradicate.

Everyone’s go-to treatment for lice has for years been over the counter products that contain chemicals known as pyrethroids.  While these chemicals are technically classified as insecticides, they’ve been such a staple of the lice-removal industry because, while they’ll kill lice, they’re still gentle and safe for children and adults. 

The problem is that pyrethroids have been the predominate if not the only type of anti-lice chemicals used in the treatment of lice for decades.  Lice therefore have had a long time to build up a tolerance to these chemicals, much in the same way that bacteria and viruses in hospitals have made headlines over their immunity to antibiotics and anti-virus drugs.

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Resistance to these chemicals has been documented as far back as 20 years ago, in Israel, but now at least half of the states in the U.S. have reported superbug strains of lice that just aren’t affected by traditional lice treatments.  While part of the problem is that lice have predominately had to deal only with pyrethroids and have therefore only had to focus genetic adaption for one factor, the other side of the equation likely has to do with improper use of the products containing these chemicals.

Lice treatments tend to require users to leave the product in their hair for a given period of time, often overnight, so that the chemicals can have time to come into contact with every louse in the hair and on the scalp.  People don’t always adhere to this requirement, though, rinsing the product out well before the minimum time of exposure.  This means that not all of the lice are likely to have been killed, and the ones that are left have had the opportunity to build up a tolerance to the chemicals used, thus making it harder to get rid of them. 

Using less than the required amount also leads to the same problem, as the population of lice being treated are exposed to enough chemicals to kill some of them, while others’ systems are now more capable of tolerating what should otherwise be toxic to them.

Viable Treatment Options:

Now that lice are growing much stronger and are no longer affected by treatment processes like they used to be, what does this mean for treatment options in the future?  For now, over the counter treatment options are still worth a shot.  Remember, only 25 states have reported the presence of super-lice, so it’s still likely that pyrethroids can do the job of treating people dealing with lice. 

While the majority of over the counter treatments use the same class of chemicals, there are prescription treatments that you can obtain from your doctor that feature various types of chemicals.  Whether you go with over the counter or prescription options, you still have to be sure that you’re following the directions to the dot.  Many treatments require you to wash your hair/apply treatment products more than once in order to eradicate lice, so don’t skimp and just use the treatment once.

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It’s also important to remember that lice aren’t going to simply stay put.  If your child or anyone else in the household has gotten lice, then some serious deep cleaning is in order.  Make sure to wash all bed linens and clothing – especially headwear – and to vacuum thoroughly.  When washing, remember to wash in hot water to be sure that all lice, larva, and eggs are killed.  Go ahead and throw away any haircare or styling products in case any nits have found their way into them.  Hairbrushes and combs need to be sterilized, as well, which you can do by boiling them.

Most importantly, though, don’t panic.  Lice may be getting a bit trickier to deal with, but you can still get rid of them.  Vigilance and perseverance are going to be the order of the day for now.  For the future, once more-varied types of anti-lice chemicals are introduced we’ll hopefully see the end of the superbug story.