So here's a little news today that'll make you itch: According to new research, schools across 25 U.S. states are being invaded by "super lice" — just in time for back-to-school. How lovely! And if you're wondering what exactly "super lice" are, they're basically a particularly terrible and gross-sounding kind of head lice that just don't want to die. Thanks to researchers at Southern Illinois University, we now know that they're growing increasingly resistant to a group of insecticides called pyrethroids, which just so happen to be the main ingredient in most over-the-counter treatments.
Now, if you're anything like me (and most people, I'd think), the very concept of lice is pretty nausea-inducing on its own. But super lice? Nearly-invisible mites crawling through your hair, impervious to most common remedies? Ahhh!
Study author Kyong S. Yoon, Ph.D. shared the news of the so-called "super-strain" of lice this week at the American Chemical Society's annual meeting. Yoon is currently an assistant professor in the Biological Sciences and Environmental Sciences Program at Southern Illinois University and has been researching lice since 2000. According to TIME, he and his fellow researchers recently conducted a census of American lice by collecting pest populations, and they were pretty shocked to learn that the majority of them were so resistant to the very over-the-counter lice treatments parents commonly give their kids. Though the research is still ongoing, Yoon told TIME that it's pretty clear this is a "really, really serious problem right now in the U.S." — and one that parents and school administrators need to be aware of.
In his study, Yoon collected 109 samples from more than 30 states. All but five states were found to have "super lice." Here are the 25 where the super-strain is invading: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.
According to the Center for Disease Control, it's estimated that between 6 and 12 million school kids get head lice every year, and they're all between the ages of three and 11. As for that huge 6 million-kid gap in estimation, the CDC admits that the data we have on lice infestations isn't exactly reliable. (So there could be even more cases out there every year.)
In case you're unfamiliar with what these tiny, wingless insects are all about, lice are only around the size of sesame seeds, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. But they sustain themselves by sucking blood and multiplying fast on the scalp. Children often contract them in one of two ways — head-to-head contact with other kids, or by sharing things like hats, combs, or headbands.
If you're getting some major heebie-jeebies over this one, I feel you. But here are six ways you can still combat head lice — and yes, even super lice — should you, or your kid, ever get it.
1. Follow Directions Super Closely, And Keep On Top Of The Problem
Debbie Busdiecker, who oversees school health for the Cuyahoga County Board of Health in Ohio, recently told NBC News affiliate WOIO that lice often sticks around when children aren't treated correctly. While it may sound like a no-brainer, she suggests paying extra-close attention to the directions of whatever shampoo treatment you use, to make sure it's as effective as possible.
2. Get A Lice Comb
Going through your kid's wet hair with a fine-toothed lice comb is one of the most efficient ways to spot, and quickly remove, lice. (And there are lots of specially-designed and reasonably priced lice combs out there to choose from.) Busdiecker also had this kinda gross, but honest advice: "If your child does have head lice, whatever treatment is used, really get in there and pick the nits out with your fingers," said Busdiecker. "[It's] really the most effective way, knowing that no shampoo is 100 percent effective."
3. Don't Treat Everyone In The Family, Even If You're Tempted
You might think you're doing everyone a favor by heading off the problem and treating the whole family — regardless of whether or not they have lice. But that's actually not the best tactic, according to Busdiecker. "If one person in the household has head lice, it's important not to treat the whole family," explained Busdiecker. "Because if other people don't have it, then you treat them, they could become resistant to that shampoo."
4. Avoid Chemicals
When picking out a treatment, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises you choose chemical-free lice prevention products, which will still work just fine when dissolving the lice's waxy exoskeleton (aka killing them). Chemical-laden lice treatments aren't totally necessary for squashing the problem, and aren't safe if inhaled or ingested. This is especially true for kids with asthma, or other health conditions that might be triggered by using harsh, chemical-based products.
5. Toss Anything And Everything Into The Dryer
OK, so not everything, exactly. But whatever you can fit in there that might be infested, you should put in there — and run it through a hot cycle for about a half-hour. Heat and hot air kills lice, as do sudden changes in temperature. But if there's anything else that can't fit in the dryer, here's another tip: Seal it in a garbage bag and leave it for two days. Lack of air and moisture is another sure-fire way to kill them.
6. Resist The Urge To Over-Treat
Even though those gross little mites might seriously creep you out, Busdiecker warns not to go overboard on the treatments. As she told WOIO, over-treating a lice infestation with different preventative measures actually contributes to the whole resistance problem. So you could be painting yourself into a corner there.
When all else fails, and those little suckers still won't go away? Call your doctor and ask for a stronger, prescription-based lice treatment that might just do the trick.
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