5 things parents need to know about so-called 'mutant head lice'

"Mutant lice" are spreading across the country. Apparently, we're all doomed.

They supposedly look something like this. GIF from "20 Million Miles to Earth"


Somewhere between 6 and 12 million kids get lice every year in the U.S., and now we have even more reason to get the heebie-jeebies.

Researchers from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville just announced that in at least 25 U.S. states, they've found lice that are resistant to over-the-counter treatments.

For parents in the thick of the back-to-school rat race, that's alarming news. My own daughter just started daycare a few weeks ago, and my first urge was to immediately shave her head and barricade our family in an underground bunker.

But after doing some digging, I'm not quite as freaked out about this epidemic. And you shouldn't be either.

Here are five things you should really know about the "mutant lice" outbreak before you do anything rash.

1. Let's cool it with the "mutant" talk.

OK, so here's what lice are: They're tiny six-legged bugs, usually two to three millimeters long, that live and lay eggs in human hair.

Here's what they aren't: oversized flesh-eating monsters.

Over time, yes, lice seem to have developed a resistance to common treatments, which is actually a really normal thing that happens all the time. It just means that the odd lice who just so happen to be immune to our pesticides have a better chance of surviving than their peers, so eventually they become more prevalent.

Sure, the term "mutant" is technically accurate because we're talking about gene mutations, but let's be real — these bugs didn't stroll through a puddle of primordial ooze and grow enormous fangs overnight.

They're still basically the same old lice — gross and super annoying, but ultimately, harmless.

2. Lice may be immune to certain over-the-counter treatments, but there are other options.

You are also free to try whatever this is. Photo by zoomar/Flickr

Most nonprescription lice treatments use chemicals called permethrin and pyrethrin, which are supposed to paralyze and then kill the bugs. The experts are saying that most of this stuff won't work as well as it used to.

But don't worry! Shaving your kid's head isn't the only solution.

The first thing you can do is try higher doses of the standard lice treatments like Nix and Rid. You can also try things like wet combing (apparently vigorous dry combing can send lice airborne via static electricity ... aaaand now you're picturing a bug riding a lightning bolt across the sky) or you can suffocate the lice with an overnight mayonnaise bath (which sounds like it might actually be worse than actually having lice).

If things get really bad, you can get a prescription from a pediatrician for a treatment that uses different chemicals that might be more effective.

CNN writes that these alternatives "would not be a lasting fix" because eventually lice that are naturally immune to those would start to take over the population. But do we care? Pretty sure we just want these creatures off our kids' heads, like, yesterday.

3. You can always hire a professional "nitpicker" for $85 an hour ... or more.

If you get desperate enough, you can actually hire someone to manually comb and pick the lice from your kid's hair. They might first try to drown the lice with olive oil, and then they'll comb out the live ones and pick the eggs (called "nits") with their fingers ... which can take several hours.

Wow.

Monkeys have had it figured out for a while. GIF from WildFilmsIndia/YouTube

Be wary though, a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics warns that the nits, or eggs, aren't necessarily much to worry about. If you've treated and removed the live lice, the infestation is unlikely to spread.

There is a small chance that the lice will come back if there are enough eggs left behind, though. Plus, some nitpickers will even teach you how to delouse your kid's hair yourself next time.

Whether it's worth the money is up to you, and how long your kid can sit still.

4. This is important: Don't freak out!

OK, I'm going to show you a picture of an actual louse. Are you ready? Seriously, try to hold it together.

OH MY GOD. Photo by Gilles Saint Martin/Flickr

OK, phew. We got it over with.

Hate to break it to you, but by the time your kid starts scratching their head, they probably already had lice for four to six weeks.

As horrifying as these things look, your kid isn't in danger and doesn't pose much of a threat to spread lice to others.

Again, lice are pretty much harmless. They aren't known to spread disease or cause significant physical damage. So while they make us squirm and itch, they aren't necessarily a true emergency.

Just don't share a hat or a pillow with him until you know the lice are gone.

5. Kids shouldn't be excluded from activities for having lice.

C'mon, let this kid go out and play! Photo by Juhan Sonin/Flickr

Lice can't fly or jump, so outside of riding waves of static electricity through the air, they really only spread via direct contact, like two kids literally rubbing their heads together (crazier things than that happen at school, I'm sure).

In fact, that's the reason lice seem to gravitate toward kids rather than adults; they're always up in each other's personal space, and it gives the lice plenty of opportunities to travel.

Some schools have a "No-Nit Policy," which means kids with lice can't come back into the classroom until all the eggs are gone from their hair. But we already know that having a few residual eggs likely isn't enough to cause further spreading, which is why, according to the CDC, both the American Association of Pediatrics and the National Association of School Nurses believe these policies should be discontinued.

Having lice as a kid probably really sucks; let's not make them feel even worse about it by shunning them from society.

There, don't you feel better? I know I do.

The airline industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as global and domestic travel came to a screeching halt last spring. When the pandemic was officially declared in March of 2020, no one knew what to expect or how long the timeline of lockdowns and life changes would last.

Two weeks after the declaration, Delta pilot Chris Dennis flew one of the airline's planes to Victorville, CA for storage. He shared photos on Facebook that day of empty planes neatly lined up, saying it was a day he would remember for the rest of his life.

"Chilling, apocalyptic, surreal...all words that still don't fit what is happening in the world," he wrote. "Each one of these aircraft represents hundreds of jobs, if not more."

He added:

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The airline industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as global and domestic travel came to a screeching halt last spring. When the pandemic was officially declared in March of 2020, no one knew what to expect or how long the timeline of lockdowns and life changes would last.

Two weeks after the declaration, Delta pilot Chris Dennis flew one of the airline's planes to Victorville, CA for storage. He shared photos on Facebook that day of empty planes neatly lined up, saying it was a day he would remember for the rest of his life.

"Chilling, apocalyptic, surreal...all words that still don't fit what is happening in the world," he wrote. "Each one of these aircraft represents hundreds of jobs, if not more."

He added:

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."