Health: Lice, damned lice and statistics

Herbal remedies are increasingly popular in the treatment of head lice, but are they any more effective, or safer, than the conventional cures, asks Cherrill Hicks

Herbal remedies for head lice are fast becoming popular. Oils such as rosemary, tea tree and lavender are catching on among the trendier middle classes, concerned over the possible side-effects of insecticides found in some head lice lotions sold over the counter.

But some doctors are growing anxious about this trend, pointing out that herbal remedies, too, can have adverse effects.

John Simpson, chair of a national working party on head lice, says that none of the herbal remedies has been tested in clinical trials and that concentrated or essential oils could have toxic side-effects. "Rosemary is already known to trigger uterine contractions and miscarriage," he points out. "Just because something is natural doesn't necessarily mean it is safe. These oils are used in high concentrations, and we don't know enough about their toxicity."

Christine Steward, president of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, is scathing in her response. "It's a joke, when you consider that they are putting pesticides on children's heads," she says.

Ms Steward, who favours a mix of rosemary, lavender, eucalyptus and geranium oils for head lice, concedes that essential oils should always be diluted rather than used neat on the skin because some are irritants. Nor should more powerful oils such as thyme be used.

"You have to be careful what you are doing, but used properly the oils are fine," she says. "I know there have been no clinical trials, but many of these oils are known to have antimicrobial properties."

Rinsing a child's hair in rosemary tea will also deter lice from crossing from one head to another, she adds.

So what should parents do if they suspect an infestation? First, relax: head lice rarely cause serious health problems, although they can itch horribly. And forget about any social stigma associated with poor hygiene: lice have no preference for either clean or dirty hair.

For a firm diagnosis, comb wet hair with a fine-tooth comb, working carefully downwards from the top of the head and round. The presence of a live louse - colour grey-brown, and about the size of a sesame seed - is unmistakable; nits (the dead egg cases, which go white after hatching) are not.

There is more than one treatment option. Chemical head lice lotions, available in chemists, contain either malathion, an organophosphate, carbaryl (now regarded as a potential human carcinogen, and available on prescription only) or pyrethroids such as permethrin. All these have been shown to be effective in clinical trials, although resistance can build up; two applications are usually needed, one week apart, to allow for any unhatched lice.

But could they be toxic? Among farmers, organophosphates have been linked to symptoms such as chronic fatigue, memory loss and flu-like symptoms such as sweating and dizziness. Research has also shown, rather alarmingly, that if a child is treated with 0.5 per cent malathion lotion - the normal solution - the amount absorbed is above that absorbed by protected insecticide workers.

However, this is still well below acute toxicity levels, and malathion is quickly metabolised by the liver and excreted in the urine. Reassuringly, trials on adult volunteers of a single application 10 times normal strength did not cause any adverse effects.

The risks associated with the recommended dose of malathion are thought to be very low. More worrying is when parents continually treat their children with insecticides, or use them at intervals of less than a week, which can increase the risk of side-effects.

Those who opt for a herbal treatment should dilute it in a carrier oil such as sunflower or almond oil, rather than use it direct on to the skin. The solution should be rubbed into dry hair and the head towel-wrapped for an hour, before washing out.

A third method of eliminating head lice is known to have absolutely no side-effects. Called "bug busting", it involves using shampoo, conditioner, a special comb - and a fair amount of patience - to break the life cycle of the lice. Although there have been no trials of this method, many have reported success. Treatment packs are available from chemists; or ring Community Hygiene Concern on 0181-341 7167 for more details.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own