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Children's Health

Prescription Lice Medication May Do More Harm Than Good

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Each year, head lice afflicts millions of children and adults, with many cases being detected about this time of year as school begins and children are suddenly in tighter quarters. The lice reproduce quickly, with a newborn reaching maturity within 10 days. Eggs also hatch in about 10 days.

Researchers today do not believe lice carry disease. But many children are hurt or exposed to potential injuries through the use of unsafe products designed to kill the lice. Just a few weeks ago, a Colorado child who had lice was critically burned when gasoline that was applied to her hair -- but was washed off -- later caught fire. Because of overuse, many lice products available without a prescription don't work as well as they used to because the lice have developed a resistance to them.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is concerned about the number of head lice products advertised on the Internet, many of which make promises that are not backed up by science. In April, nearly 30 sites were sent a warning letter about this, and the FTC is now deciding whether to take action against some of them.

Another prescription product, called Ovide, contains a chemical called malathion. This is the same substance that is used to kill mosquitoes during aerial spraying and may cause reactions in some people. Ovide is also not without controversy, as some believe it may be flammable because alcohol is one of its major ingredients.

So what's a parent to do? "I think combing is extremely important," says Laura Koss, a FTC staff attorney.

Paula Hensel, RN, a pediatric nurse practitioner and former public health department nurse, tells WebMD she counsels families to refrain from panicking when head lice are discovered and says over-the-counter shampoos are "worth a try."

But Hensel, who practices at Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin, quickly adds that these preparations won't kill all the lice, and most of the eggs will escape injury, too. "I think what is required is a lot of patience, just sitting down and combing," says Hensel, noting that a comb developed by the NPA is the best she has seen. "This one is much better than the others and gets the job done quicker," she says.

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