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?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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: Service Advisor

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Recruitment Genius: Logistics Coordinator / Admin Support

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Logistics Coordinator is required to join a ...

Recruitment Genius: International Exhibitions Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: International Exhibition Sales ...

Recruitment Genius: 2nd Line IT Support Engineer

£18000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map