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Brace yourself — drug-resistant lice are now in at least 42 states

In the kind of news that is sure to make you itch, the dreaded “super lice” are back with a vengeance. We first heard of these little buggers last fall, but the problem is far from over. Kids are now encountering the lice-that-won’t-die in more than 42 states.

Here’s what you need to know about the unwelcome friends your child might be bringing home from school this year. Just like a low-budget sci-fi movie, a new ultra-strain of lice has become resistant to most commercial lice shampoos. Lice and other bugs are apparently growing resistant to the active ingredients found in most OTC treatments, called pyrethroids. A new study conducted by the Journal of Medical Entomology has confirmed that an average of 98 percent of head lice in at least 42 states have grown “super lice” gene mutations, making them resistant to common insecticides.

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According to the study, the only states that may still be safe from the resistant strain are Oregon, New Mexico, North Dakota, Michigan and certain parts of New York and New Jersey. As for everyone else in the country, scientists say we still may not be completely doomed. Kyong Sup Yoon, an assistant science professor at Southern Illinois University, says that the mutation makes the lice “somewhat insensitive,” but in most cases, the insecticides can still kill the lice “if you apply way more of the compound.” Dr. Robin Gehris, the chief of pediatric dermatology at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, agreed, telling viewers on Today to “treat the entire head and leave it on for a few hours and then repeat a week later.” He says that “if you still see things moving after the second treatment it’s time to call the doctor.”

If you ever had the pleasure of having lice as a kid or if your child has brought them home from school, then you know what a living nightmare it is to deal with regular lice. You have to quarantine, comb hair, apply smelly shampoo, wash everything, throw away stuffed animals and ultimately consider burning your house down so that you don’t have to deal with the hassle of it all. Lice are the worst, and this isn’t even taking into account the new super lice that could laugh in the face of OTC shampoo.

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Logically, many are considering using stronger chemical shampoo to get rid of super lice, but this theory has a few problems. Not only is there the possibility that lice can grow even stronger to resist stronger chemicals (meaning they will soon take over the world), but we’re talking about putting these extra-strong chemicals on the sensitive scalps of young children.

So, if the OTC stuff isn’t working, and you’ve found yourself with a case of the super-bug, there are two things you can do to head off the super lice invading America: prevent and contain.

Lice prevention

Lice prevention starts far before you get that dreaded lice letter sent home from school. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, here are the best early lice-prevention tips every family needs to know:

  • Teach your child not to share — sharing toys is still kosher, but passing around personal belongings like hats, pillows and earbuds at school is an absolute no-no.
  • Teach your child to steer clear of lice “hot zones” — lice-friendly beds, couches, pillows and rugs in public places should be avoided.
  • Check hair regularly — preferably using a comb and a bright light after a bath, every night before bed.
  • Inspect, inspect, inspect — check clothing, towels, rugs, bedding and other household items that are easily infested for signs of lice and nits.

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Lice containment

Even when your child comes home scratching their head, it’s not too late. If you jump at the first sign of an itch — and do the dirty work by cleansing your home — you can contain super lice before they spread to friends and family. In the Pharmacist’s Guide to Controlling Head Lice, The National Pediculosis Association recommends containing lice before resorting to the use of chemicals (that might not work anyway).

  • Wash everything in hot water and dry in a hot dryer — like clothes, sheets, stuffed toys and any other household items that may have been exposed.
  • Vacuum everything in sight that can’t be washed or dry-cleaned — vacuuming is the safest and most effective lice control alternative to spraying a home with pesticides.
  • Avoid bagging clothes and toys — vacuuming is far more effective and less traumatic for young children who have lice.
  • Try manual lice removal first — nit-picking wet hair is safer and gentler than chemical lice treatment.

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So, you can still try an over-the-counter treatment to deal with the super lice your kids might bring home from school, but if the lice are resistant, there’s no guarantee OTC shampoos will work. In that case, you may even want to try ditching the fancy shampoos altogether and picking those tricky bugs out the old-fashioned way. New research in the Journal of Medical Entomology has shown that ordinary hair conditioner is just as effective as special oils or chemical-containing lice products. Try coating your kid’s hair with regular old conditioner, and you may just be able to spot and pick out eggs and head lice by carefully going through each strand with a comb. The conditioner makes it difficult for lice to move around and helps trap them in the teeth of the comb.

If all those options fail, you should go see your pediatrician right away instead of trying one treatment after another. Repeat chemical treatments can be potentially dangerous to kids and are only recommended 10 days apart. A pediatrician can prescribe a medicated treatment that super lice may not be resistant to yet.

At the end of the day, when you’ve tried everything and have spent hours ridding your home of the lice that refuse to die, you can comfort yourself with one all-important fact: Experts agree that having lice doesn’t mean a child is “dirty.” Kids are most likely to spread lice around, but anyone with hair can get them.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below.

inappropriate onesies
Image: matspersson0/Getty Images

Originally published Feb. 2016. Updated Aug. 2016.

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