Of Lice and Men – A Brief History of Head Lice & Treatments

Louse:

  1. Any wingless blood sucking insect of the order Anoplura: includes Pediculus capitis (head louse).
  2. Slang an unpleasant or mean person

Lice probably developed about 1.7 million years before modern humans emerged, and evolved with humans as we evolved from chimpanzees.  The oldest tangible evidence of human head lice?  A nit found on the hair of a 10,000-year-old body in Brazil.  And more recently – albeit still prehistoric – intact nits on the heads of ancient mummified Romans and Egyptians.   Even lice combs have been found in the Egyptian tombs (it is believed that Cleopatra had solid gold lice combs buried with her).

historical head lice image

Head lice have been so pervasive throughout human history that lice and lice outbreaks have snuck into our everyday collective literacy. The “louse” is synonymous with bad and cruel behavior. “Lousy” is defined as “very poor or bad, disgusting.” A nitwit is someone or something stupid, and a nitpicker is someone who is overly critical. And any time somebody refers to go through something “with a fine toothed comb,” you are referring back to the most ancient of head-lice treatments.

And while that’s interesting, what is probably more relevant to you is that the battle between humans and lice has been going on almost as long as human history using a variety of tactics, but with little change effectiveness – until now!

The first documented treatment of head lice?  The Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical guide from around 1550 B.C.  For driving away fleas and lice, it recommends combining warm date meal and water in the mouth and then spitting it on to the skin.   Documents from China dated around 1200 B.C. indicate they used mercury and arsenic compounds.  In 1100 A.D. a Rabbi declared that it was permitted to remove head lice on the Sabbath.  By 450 B.C., Egyptians endorsed shaving all hair from the body to eradicate lice.

The first significant advance didn’t come until about 100 A.D. when the Chinese discovered a natural and effective insecticide extracted from chrysanthemums dubbed Pyrethrum powder.  Marco Polo proclaimed Pyrethrum powder to be a near magical compound and brought it to Europe in 1300 A.D.  Jump ahead several centuries to the 1940s when a more refined extract of pyrethrum was developed, Pyrethrin, which indeed was effective at killing head lice (but less so at killing eggs/nits). In 1977, Permethrin, a synthetic version of Pyrethrin, was introduced as a head-lice treatment product.

As of today, 80% of over-the-counter lice products contain some form of Pyrethrin.  However, lice are evolutionary survivors and have developed resistance to the pesticides in these products.  Resistance to both forms of Pyrethrin have been being documented as early as 1999.

So, despite these products, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still concedes that there are 6-12 million cases of head lice in the United States each year (although accurate data is difficult to acquire because reporting is inconsistent because many parents hide the condition from their schools and doctors).

There is good news, however!  In 2006, a new type of medical device was developed by Larada Sciences, the AirAllé.  This is the first FDA-cleared medical device clinically proven to kill head lice and lice eggs. The device uses controlled heated air to dehydrate head lice and eggs.  The treatment only requires about an hour and has been clinically show to kill 99.2% of lice eggs in children and adults.  Lice Clinics of America Sacramento is proud to be the exclusive provider of the AirAllé head-lice treatment.

 

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