Head lice in their current form have been afflicting humans for some 100,000 years, according to most experts. Historians are divided a bit on how and why the technology to combat head lice has evolved. Some have argued that humans accepted head lice for millennia as a fact of life—especially in cultures where bathing was frowned up. Few treatments or defenses were developed, they say, because it was considered undignified to cleanse one’s self.
Where head lice were not welcomed, however technology developed to remove them. These treatments can be roughly broken into two categories—chemicals and devices. The first device to combat head lice appears to be the very same thing that we use today—a lice comb. Lice combs have been found in the tombs of Egyptian tombs dating back to 5,000 B.C.
The first recorded chemical treatment for head lice also came from the Egyptians. A medical guide called the Ebers Papyrus dated around 1550 B.C. recommends filling one’s mouth with warm date meal and water and then spitting it onto the skin “in order to drive away the Fleas and Lice which disport themselves…” Chinese medical literature from 1200 B.C. indicates that mercury and arsenic were recommended as topical lice treatments. By 450 B.C. the Egyptians appear to have given up on chemical treatments—one manuscript recommends shaving the entire body as the most effective way to eradicate lice.
In 100 A.D. Chinese chemists extracted a powder from a Chrysanthemum flower that proved to be an effective insecticide. It was called Pyrethrum and it was likely brought to Europe in the 14th century in the age of Marco Polo. Fast-forward some 500 years and you have the first commercial products brought to market to combat head lice developed in the U.S. in the 1940’s—using Pyrethrin, a more refined Pyrethrum extract, as the active ingredient. A few decades later in 1977, Permethrin, a synthetic version of Pyrethrin was introduced.
These are the active ingredients in the most popular over-the-counter lice treatments sold today.
Incredibly, the two major products in lice-removal technology—lice combs and Pyrethrum-based chemicals—have their roots in technology that is thousands of years old. Other prescription chemicals have been developed for severe cases of head lice, and many unregulated products are sold online, but little focus has been placed on medical devices as a path to treating head lice.
This all changed in the 1990’s in a University of Utah research laboratory. Researchers were studying animal lice and found that it was very difficult to keep the lice alive in the arid desert climate. When one of the scientist’s children came home with head lice that resisted chemical treatment, he thought that it might be possible to kill lice by re-creating the research environment where the lice he studied could not survive.
It worked. The result is AirAllé. It represents a completely new approach to head-lice removal, using controlled, warm air to dehydrate the lice and their eggs. The device has been through clinical trials and has been cleared by the Health Canada as safe and effective for lice removal, killing both live lice and 99.2 percent of eggs in a single treatment.
The culmination of the researchers’ work was published in 2006 of a paper in the journal Pediatrics. A follow-up study was published in the Journal of Medical Entomology in 2011.
The AirAllé device is available exclusively at Lice Clinics of Canada treatment centers where trained technicians use the device to rid patients of head lice in a single treatment. Treatments take 60-90 minutes on average.