It’s back-to-school time, which means time to be on the lookout for head lice — and not just any lice. If your child’s head keeps itching even after you’ve tried over-the-counter medications, he might be infested with “super lice.”
The Star first reported in 2015 on the arrival of the lice, which had developed resistance to traditional treatments.
Rupal Gupta, a pediatrician with Children’s Mercy Hospital, said she’s seen some cases this year.
“We’ve had to use some more stronger prescription medications for certain cases of lice, especially the lice cases that keep coming back,” Gupta said. “We do know that certain populations of lice in the area do seem to be getting resistant to permethrin.”
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But Gupta said there’s no reason to fear. Lice, though annoying, are essentially harmless to health. They spread mostly through head-to-head contact, so they’re relatively easy to contain as compared to airborne illnesses like measles.
There are also effective treatments available, even for lice that no longer respond to permethrin, a common insecticide.
Gupta said a topical form of ivermectin, an anti-parasite medication that used to only be available orally, is a game-changer.
“It’s only the past few years that it’s been available,” Gupta said. “It used to be there were only a few options and pretty dangerous ones when permethrin didn’t work, so when ivermectin came on the market it provided a safer option.”
Gupta said ivermectin, which is only available by prescription, should be used sparingly. It’s more expensive than over-the-counter treatments and it’s important to keep lice from developing resistance to it as well.
Japanese researchers described oral ivermectin as a “wonder drug” in a 2011 paper for its track record of saving people and animals infested with internal parasites, especially in developing countries, since it was developed in the 1970s.
But the researchers also warned that ivermectin-resistance had already been detected in some cattle parasites and may be starting to develop in some human parasites.
“This is typically what can happen with overuse of any medications,” Gupta said. “This is what happened with permethrin.”
Gupta recommends trying over-the-counter treatments first, then seeking medical attention if the lice resist. And don’t panic.
“They’re really a nuisance,” Gupta said. “They don’t transmit disease. They’re just itchy and really bothersome. But they definitely hit their higher time when kids are going back to school.”