The most common over-the-counter lice treatment products use pyrethrin, an industrial insecticide used to kill lice. Natural pyrethrin is a derivative of the Chrysanthemum flower. Its synthetic equivalent is permethrin. Together the chemicals are referred to as pyrethroids.
There are some 3,500 products that use pyrethroids in varying concentrations, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. These products include home, agricultural, and garden pest control products. Some anti-mosquito clothing uses fabric treated with pyrethroids.
When used for head lice, pyrethroids are usually combined or synergized with piperonyl butoxide. The two chemicals act synergistically to kill lice by acting on nerve cell membranes and interrupting signals travelling between the brain and the muscles. The lice/parasites become paralyzed and die because they are unable to breathe or eat.
According to the Extension Toxicology Network (A Project of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, and the University of California at Davis), “Synthetic pyrethroid compounds vary in their toxicity as do the natural pyrethrins. Inhaling high levels of pyrethrum may bring about asthmatic breathing, sneezing, nasal stuffiness, headache, nausea, incoordination, tremors, convulsions, facial flushing and swelling, and burning and itching sensations. The most severe poisonings have been reported in infants who are not able to efficiently break down pyrethrum.”
Few head lice treatment products advertise themselves as insecticides, as most parents would not knowingly shampoo a child’s head with a toxic substance. While the products are deemed safe when used as directed, health authorities recognize that many parents tend to over-apply the products in a misguided attempt to kill lice. Parents are often in a panicked state when dealing with head lice and think that more shampoo is better than less, perhaps believing that more frequent applications may help eradicate lice more quickly.
As troubling as the research on pyrethroid risks is, of more concern may be the fact that pyrethroid-based lice products no longer work. Multiple studies have found that in the United States and other countries where these products have been used for decades to treat head lice, most head lice are now immune to pyrethroids. This suggests that parents may be unknowingly exposing their children to health risks with products that may not be effective against lice. Dubbed “super lice,” the most recent study found that 98 percent of lice tested in 48 states now carry a genetic mutation that makes them impervious to pyrethroids.
Fortunately, researchers have gotten ahead of the combination of the health risks and diminishing effectiveness of over-the-counter lice medications. Researchers at the University of Utah developed a medical device that dehydrates lice and eggs in a matter of minutes. The device, called AirAllé, was cleared by the FDA in 2010 and is clinically proven to kill live lice and 99 percent of eggs.
Treatment using the AirAllé device is available at Lice Clinics of America professional treatment centers throughout the United States and in 33 other countries. For more information or to locate a clinic, visit www.liceclinicsofamerica.com.