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Hot Air Spells Death for Head Lice

New device exterminates the bugs and their eggs, developers say

MONDAY, Nov. 6, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- A contraption that looks like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a hair dryer could rescue children from the scourge of head lice, a new study claims.

According to one of its creators, the device has a near-perfect success rate at killing off both lice and any of their eggs lurking in kids' hair. And the little critters shouldn't become immune to the so-called "LouseBuster," as they already have to some pesticides.

"It's extremely effective and extremely safe, and we think evolution-proof," said study co-author Dale Clayton, a University of Utah biology professor. "It would be very hard for insects to develop resistance to this assault."

According to Clayton, an estimated one in four American children will get infected by head lice. The tiny insects -- about the size of a sesame seed -- can be very difficult to eradicate.

One way is to get rid of them is to use repeatedly use special lice combs on children's heads, but this approach is so time-consuming that it can overwhelm parents. A variety of anti-lice shampoos are also available, but some parents don't like the idea of using insecticides -- including Malathion -- on their kids. Also, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says some lice have developed immunity to the chemicals used to kill them, although such problems are scattered.

Enter hot air, which some specialists think may be better at killing lice and their eggs.

Clayton and his colleagues tested a variety of hair dryers -- including handheld and "bonnet" models -- on 169 local children who were infested with lice. Their findings appear in the November issue of Pediatrics.

All the hair dryers killed at least 89 percent of lice eggs. But only one -- the specially designed "LouseBuster" -- managed to both kill eggs (98 percent) and wipe out high numbers of living lice (80 percent). The remaining living lice appeared unable to breed, perhaps due to stress or sterilization, the team said.

So, according to the study, the heads of children treated with the LouseBuster were free of lice one week after the half-hour treatment.

"We think it has a delayed effect on the lice it doesn't kill," Clayton said. "When you go back a week later, there's nothing there."

The air produced by the LouseBuster is hot -- much warmer than a typical hair dryer. Also unlike a hair dryer, it has a special handpiece designed to expose the roots of the hair.

The device apparently works by drying out the lice and their eggs, not by heating them, Clayton said.

The cost of the device is unknown, although Clayton estimated it should be in the hundreds of dollars, not the thousands, making it affordable for school districts. He predicted it could be on the market within a year or two, and added that the time required for treatment could eventually shrink to 15 minutes.

Dr. Craig Burkhart, a dermatologist at the Medical University of Ohio who studies lice, doubted that the device will be a success, however.

"The problem with the treatment is that it takes a half an hour at least to destroy the lice and the contraption is somewhat expensive and very cumbersome," he said.

What to do? "As with all bugs, insecticides remain the treatment of choice," Burkhart said.

More information

There's more on head lice at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Dale Clayton, Ph.D., professor, biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City; and Craig Burkhart, M.D., M.P.H., dermatologist, Medical University of Ohio, Toledo; November 2006 Pediatrics
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