While it is not the most pleasant of topics, head lice are a reality, especially with children. Not only do victims have to suffer through the discomfort of these parasitic invaders in their scalps, but they must endure the treatment to remove the lice, which can often use pesticides and can be unpleasant in and of themselves.

Now, however, researchers believe they may have developed a compound that is not only non-toxic (safe for children as young as 6 months old), but had, on average, a 91.2% success rate in terms of killing off the head lice. The treatment, described in the journal Pediatric Dermatology, works by suffocating the insects.

Suffocation is a common approach to removing lice, utilizing such household items as mayonnaise, vegetable oil, and Vaseline. While these home remedies may appear to be effective, the bugs can actually resist asphyxiation and resurrect themselves once the treatment is washed off.

Lice have the ability to close the air passages through which they breathe when they become submerged, simply reopening them once they have access to air. In other words, they can hold their breath. The new treatment, which uses benzyl alcohol and mineral oil, appears to force these passageways open, thereby inundating the breathing apparatus of the lice and killing them.

Current lice exterminating protocols often entail the use of over-the-counter products that not only contain toxic chemicals, but can require long application times, unpleasant odors, and inefficacy. Furthermore, extensive exposure and overuse have resulted in some lice becoming resistant to treatment, which should not be an issue with suffocation. The discovery of this new approach is therefore a welcome development for the public as well as the medical community, and phase III clinical trials have just been completed.

Head lice are parasitic insects that invade and infest the head and pubic areas of people. They survive by feeding on our blood. Different lice attack different parts of the body, and the parasites are characterized by their location of attack:

  • head louse
  • body or clothes louse
  • pubic louse, or “crab” louse

Of the three, only the body louse is known to transmit disease. Lice cannot fly or jump, so transmission occurs mainly through person-to-person contact, with pets and other animals not a factor in the life-cycle.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that anywhere from 6 to 12 million infestations occur in this country each year in children between the ages of 3 and 11 years. While head lice are not known to transmit disease, secondary infections can arise from excessive scratching.

The most common route of infection is through head-to-head contact, which is more prevalent in young children. Contrary to popular belief, it is not as common for transmission to occur by wearing the clothes or hats of infected people, using an infected person’s comb or brush, or sleeping on their pillow. Some studies indicate that girls are more prone to lice infestation, perhaps due to more head-to-head contact than boys.

If you suspect your child may have lice, speak with your pediatrician as soon as possible, and alert their school. For more information about head lice, visit the website for the CDC and Headlice.org.