|You Light Up
illuminates nits, but incites criticism
WEDNESDAY, June 21 (HealthSCOUT) -- If you've ever had a child with head lice
you know that defeating the little buggers is enough to want to make you pull
your own hair out.
That's what a Yale professor and pediatrician discovered during a recent
outbreak of lice in New Haven day care centers. In fact, the experience was
enough to motivate Dr. Sydney Spiesel to develop a shampoo that makes removal of
the tiny lice eggs, commonly called nits, less of a chore.
"I was sort of the court of last resort for this one day care. I spent at
least one hour with a girl who had thick, honey-blond hair and I found several
nits even though the family had already gone through her hair," says Spiesel. "I
finished the job, but it became clear that it's a really terrible process."
Head lice, or pediculus humanus capitis, are tiny, parasitic insects
that live and feed on the scalp. While they do not pose a serious health problem
they can cause itching, skin irritation and embarrassment. They also prompt day
care centers and some schools to send children home until the problem's cleared
up, creating problems for working parents.
The purpose of the shampoo is not to kill the lice. Instead, it makes the
nits, which are usually the size of a grain of sand, visible under ultraviolet
light. The key ingredient in the shampoo, blankophor, is a whitening agent that
binds to a material in the nits' outer shell called chitin.
"Up until about 10 years ago we had potent insecticides that killed both the
lice and the eggs," explains Spiesel. "But you can no longer count on them
anymore because the nits, especially, have developed resistance."
Spiesel says removal is now the strategy of choice
for beating the nits.
"Blankophor has no toxicity that we know of for humans," says Spiesel. "When
manufacturers release chemicals for commercial use they have to issue sheets
called material data safety reports (MDSRs). The MDSR for this agent says it's
"I don't think the stuff would even do harm to the lice," adds Spiesel.
Organization's president dubious
Deborah Altschuler, president of the National Pediculosis Association, a
group formed to combat the problem, says shampooing kids' hair with a whitening
agent is not the way to go. "When we looked at the chemical he plans to use in
the shampoo, we weren't thrilled," says Altschuler. "We're not going to be
excited until we get some better science."
Altschuler says she wants to see the shampoo tested for safety on skin that's
broken or infected. She also wants to make sure it won't interact with any of
the host of medications kids take today, including antibiotics.
"Certain medications increase sensitivity to ultraviolet light," says
Altschuler. "UV light in certain scenarios can cause serious harm to the skin."
Altschuler also points out that blankophor is used as a whitening agent in
paper production and as part of a multi-step process to kill gypsy moths and
other outdoor pests.
"This is parents putting chemicals on their children they wouldn't put on
their dog," warns Altschuler.
What To Do
Children who complain about an itchy head or who have redness of the scalp
should probably be inspected for lice. The lice themselves are tiny crab-like
critters about the size of a crumb. The nits are even smaller. They often appear
as dandruff, but they won't brush away because they're stuck to the hair shafts.
Spiesel is currently talking to several manufacturers who plan to sell his
shampoo over the counter, complete with ultraviolet light bulbs. Spiesel has no
idea when the shampoo will be available, but he already has a name for his
product, courtesy of a youngster in his practice: HeadLights for Head Lice.
Altschuler says education and early detection are safer and more effective
than chemicals. Upon infestation, she recommends physically, manually removing
the nits with an effective combing tool. "It's not possible to prevent lice, but
it is possible to prevent unnecessary exposure to chemicals."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that between six and
12 million people worldwide get head lice each year.
To learn more about the problem and ways to combat it, go to the National Pediculosis Association. You can
also visit the CDC for parasitic
SOURCES: Interviews with
Sydney Z. Spiesel, M.D., assistant clinical professor of pediatrics, Yale School
of Medicine, New Haven, Conn., and Deborah Altschuler, president, National
Pediculosis Association, Newton, Mass.; Yale University news release
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