Should You Be Worried About "Super" Lice?

Update: Super lice are reportedly back and wreaking havoc on schools in at least 25 states. Read up on what you should know about the strain ahead.

This story was originally published on September 4, 2015.

The month of September brings to mind many things: falling leaves, leather jackets and boots, apple picking, and kids heading back to school. But as the youth take a seat at their desks once again, they may be toting some not-so-friendly friends along with them. Lice. You might remember them from your school days, but today's critters may be even crueler. A recent report found that such "super lice" have stopped responding to typical over-the-counter treatments.

"We are the first group to collect lice samples from a large number of populations across the U.S.," researcher Kyong Yoon said in his study, which was presented at the American Chemical Society. "What we found was that 104 out of the 109 lice populations we tested had high levels of gene mutations, which have been linked to resistance to pyrethroids." Pyrethroids are the active ingredient commonly found in lice treatments.

This latest strain of parasites are going by the names mutant or super lice — you decide which is worse. But according to Amy Goldreyer, founder of head lice removal service, Hair Whisperers, these stormtrooper bugs have been around for quite some time. "The chemicals haven’t been working for a really long time," she says. "In five years, they’re going to come up with another strain of super lice, but it’s all the same. They do get resistant, it just happened a long time ago... If the box of shampoo worked, no one would have lice.” Touché.

But to be fair, Yoon noted in his report that this "new mutation" was first identified in Israel in the late '90s, and he studied it in graduate school in the U.S. in 2000. So yes, more resistant lice are an issue, but not a new one.

They do get resistant, it just happened a long time ago... If the box of shampoo worked, no one would have lice.

Amy Goldreyer
Another lice tale recirculating recently places the blame on selfies. We reported on the news back in February of last year (with skepticism) and WBAY has the rumor mill swirling, yet again. While up to 12 million kids are infected with lice every year, they typically fall between the ages of 3 to 11. The selfie threat affects an older bunch — cellphone carrying teenagers. While Goldreyer says the probability of head-to-head pictures could be to blame — she has noticed an upswing of older teenagers coming in for treatment.

Lice expert and founder of Fairy Tales Hair Care Risa Barash isn't so sure about the selfie phenomenon. "Lice don’t fly and they don’t jump, they crawl," she says. "They’re pretty slow, so the bug would have to be on the outside of your hair — because they live right on the scalp — and they would have to be swinging on a hair strand and, at the perfect moment, be next to the person and walk on over," she explains. "I don’t know about you, but my selfies take five seconds. The odds of that are slim to none.”

Lice still is — and will probably remain — a threat for kids (and the parents who snuggle them) everywhere, but there's no need to start homeschooling or taking their cellphones away, just yet. "It's all a bit of a scare tactic," says Barash. But if you do find yourself itching come fall, both Goldreyer and Barash recommend raking through your hair with a metal comb as the easiest way to deal with the creepy crawlers.

"It’s an arduous process, it’s not fun," says Barash. "But we always tell our moms: if your kid comes home with lice, pour yourself a glass of wine, put a movie on for your kid, and comb, and keep combing." Barash's Lice Goodbye product also helps to dissolve the body of the bug, along with the glue that allows their eggs to sticks to the hair shaft, making the combing-out process a lot easier and the risk of reinfestation minimal. Barash adds that squeaky clean hair is sometimes a breeding ground for these tiny critters. “Their claws are really really tiny so if the hair has natural oils on it, [the lice] can’t attach to [the hair shaft] as easily, so they aren’t able to climb on board,” she explains.

We're not saying you should stop cleansing your hair all together, but you should always be wary of sharing things like hats, pillows, combs, and brushes — especially the under-20 set.

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