Head lice becoming resistant to traditional treatments

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Tuesday, August 18, 2015
Head lice
This zoomed in stock photo shows four head lice on human hair.

It's a problem for parents and kids that can be both gross and tough to tackle -- head lice. And new research suggests the pesky pests are getting even harder to kill.

The research, conducted at Southern Illinois University and presented to the American Chemical Society, found that head lice are now resistant to over-the-counter treatments in 25 states.

"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 (a type of insecticide used in many lice treatments)," said Kyong Yoon, Ph.D., who conducted the research.

While exact numbers are hard to peg down, an estimated 6-12 million infestations occur each year in the United States among children ages 3-11, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lice is spread by close contact with the hair of a person who already has lice and since head-to-head contact can be common during activities like playdates, slumber parties and sports, children are often susceptible to infestation.

Traditionally, lice can be treated with over-the-counter products like Rid and Nix. Comb-out treatments, where specialists comb and pick out the lice by hand, can be another option, although they can cost hundreds of dollars.

Ben Kupferman just got back from summer camp and brought home some unwanted guests.

"I was just scratching my head and the lice came out on my finger, crawling around," said the 17-year-old resident of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Kupferman got a comb-out treatment at Hair Faries, which says it's been seeing a surge in clients.

Technician Kyle Voung says lots of kids and adults are opting for comb-out lice treatments because drug store remedies haven't worked to kill the so-called superbugs.

"We know the bugs are building resistance to the strain of medicine that is present over the counter," Voung said.

Kupferman's dad Noah and his whole family got checked for lice as a precaution.

"There's a creepiness about it... that you just want to make sure that everyone gets checked quickly," Noah Kupferman said.