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Super lice: Here's what you should know

The news of mutant lice resistant to popular treatments has caused a lot of alarm, especially with schools restarting. Parents who already had their hands full tackling regular head lice were greeted with the news of ‘super-lice’. So, what exactly are super lice and, more importantly, can they be stopped?

Super lice have many things in common with the regular: they look similar, live among human hair and take their nourishment by drawing blood from the scalp. They usually spread from head-to-head contact. However, over the course of many years, lice in some state of the US have developed mutations which make them resistant to permethrin, the main ingredient in over-the-counter lice treatments. The super lice, unlike the regular lice, cannot be treated using most popular lice treatments available today.

In a statement released by American Chemical Society, Dr. Kyong Yoon, Ph.D., from Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, said, “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 a family of insecticides which are used against mosquitoes and other insects. Permethrin is a part of this group.

The lice did not develop resistance to permethrin overnight. The very first instance of the phenomenon was reported in the 1990s in Israel. In 2000, Dr. Yoon, who was then a graduate student at University of Massachusetts in Amherst, reported the development in the U.S. In his recent study, he collected lice samples from 30 states. The mutation was discovered in the genes of lice from 25 states, including California, Texas, Florida, and Maine. Michigan was the only state where the lice had not developed any resistance.

While the lice have developed resistance to the popular treatment, Dr. Yoon insists there is no need to   panic yet as they are still susceptible to certain chemicals, some of which are available on prescription only.

Marked in pink are states where lice population have turned resistant to common treatments. 

(Image credit: Dr. Kyong Yoon)