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Br J Dermatol. 2002 Jan;146(1):88-93.

Widespread insecticide resistance in head lice to the over-the-counter pediculocides in England, and the emergence of carbaryl resistance.

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Department of Dermatology, University of Bristol, Bristol, BS2 8HW, UK.



Increasing resistance to insecticides used for the control of head lice infestation has been documented over the last decade. Treatment failure and tolerance to insecticides have been validated in a number of studies undertaken in several U.K. centres.


To establish the extent of insecticide resistance in head lice and acetylcholinesterase activity in the presence of carbaryl in head lice.


Head lice were collected from school children in four centres across England (Exmouth, Loughborough, Leeds and South Shields), and tested in their response to the insecticides permethrin, phenothrin, malathion and carbaryl. Data were compared with information collected in Bristol and Bath in 1998 and with susceptible body lice. The activity of louse acetylcholinesterase was measured with and without carbaryl in head lice collected in Bristol, Leeds, Loughborough and in body lice. The efficacy of a 1% carbaryl lotion was compared in children in Bristol and Leeds.


Compared with body lice, head lice from all six centres were significantly different in their response (P < 0.0001) to permethrin, phenothrin and malathion after 2-h exposure tests. There were significant differences in louse acetylcholinesterase activity in body lice, and head lice collected in Loughborough and Bristol in the presence or absence of carbaryl (P < 0.001), indicating enzyme inhibition. However, the difference for lice from Leeds was not significant (P = 0.363) suggesting that the enzyme was resistant to carbaryl. Eighty-nine per cent of children treated in Leeds with carbaryl were cured compared with 100% in Bristol.


The data suggest head lice resistance is present in many parts of England to over-the-counter products containing synthetic insecticides (permethrin, phenothrin and malathion). They further suggest that resistance is starting to develop to carbaryl in head lice in Leeds and that extensive use of this product would lead to significant resistance.

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