Watch Out, Kiddies! Here Come the Cooties of Steel

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The joys of childhood are timeless: Swing sets, birthday parties... the occasional school-wide outbreak of head lice. It used to be that a quick dose of a foul-smelling mixture called permethrin (Nix, Rid) and a fierce comb-through were enough to annihilate the bloodsucking pests and their eggs, but now those days of relative ease may be over. According to the results of a Harvard University study of 75 lice-infested children, some lice are no longer susceptible to over-the-counter medicines traditionally recommended by pediatricians. And so kids who come home with a case of head lice and are treated with the popular chemical return to school with their infestation and proceed to reinfect the whole class. And the cycle begins again.

Why are lice becoming hardier? According to TIME medical reporter Janice Horowitz, the Harvard study results revealed a correlation between over-treatment and resistance. "The researchers looked at kids in two American cities, Boise and Boston, and compared them with kids with lice in Borneo. In Borneo, where few or no pesticides are used, lice were killed very quickly by an application of permethrin. In Boise and Boston, the lice were far more resistant to the pesticide, having been exposed to the chemicals before." Horowitz notes that an increased dose of the lice-killer in Borneo destroyed the parasites faster, whereas an increased dose in Boise and Boston did nothing to expedite the lice’s decline. While no new medical treatments are on the immediate horizon, parents are taking matters into their own hands. The emergence of the Super Lice has spurred informal trials of folk treatments for infestations (Vaseline, baby oil, mayonnaise) in bathtubs nationwide.