It's not even a week into my daughters' school year and already the word on the street is that kids at their school have been sent home with head lice. I hesitate to jinx myself by saying this out loud, but I have yet to deal personally with head lice. I was fortunate enough never to have it as a child, and my lucky streak has continued over the last several years that my daughters have been in school.

Still, that doesn't mean that I don't panic every time I hear a head lice warning making it's way around the school gossip chain. And every year I research the heck out of the treatment options so that I will at least be prepared when my luck eventually runs out.  

Every year, head lice are estimated to afflict between 6 million and 12 million kids in the U.S., forcing parents to scramble down the pharmacy aisle looking for any kind of effective relief. Even more frightening is that this increase in cases has prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to amend its "No Nits" policy regarding withholding children from public schools who might still have nits or head lice eggs. Under the AAP's new policy, many schools now allow children with nits to return to school, potentially infecting more children before they are free and clear of lice.

It's easy to panic and hit your kids with an arsenal of chemicals if and when head lice strikes. Unfortunately, many parents don't realize that some of the most popular head lice treatments can be incredibly harmful to children — linked to everything from headaches to death.  

One of the biggest offenders is a chemical called lindane that is used in the popular head lice treatment called Kwell. This pesticide — because that is really what it is — has been banned for use on crops and cattle since 2006. It was targeted for worldwide phase-out in 2009 by the Stockholm Convention, a global treaty that targets some of the world's deadliest toxins. Supposedly, it can only be prescribed as a "second-line" treatment, when all other methods fail. Still, sales of lindane for the treatment of lice and scabies topped $10.5 million in U.S. in 2010.  

As for over-the-counter options, most commercial brands contain a synthetic pesticide from the pyrethroid group, such as permethrin or pyrethrin, that have been linked to everything from vomiting, to muscle paralysis, to death due to respiratory failure. No safe exposure level has ever been set for these chemicals. Some pyrethroids have been banned from agricultural use, yet they're still allowed in lice treatments.

Another problem with these chemicals is that they simply don't work as well as they used to because head lice have built up a resistance to these pesticides. Thus parents douse kids over and over again with chemicals that that were only meant to be used as an isolated treatment.

So what are the safe options for head lice? Not to nit-pick, but well, you're going to have to nit-pick. No, it's not easy, but it also won't harm your kids. Check out this post on the best ways to pick head lice.  

There are a number of safe, natural products that may make your nit-picking a little easier. LiceLogic Lice Treatment Shampoo is a pesticide-free product that claims to "kill live lice on contact and loosen nit glue" while the Lice Guard Robi Comb zaps lice while you brush. Again, I haven't had the pleasure of using any of these products for the treatment of head lice, but I just wanted to let you know which green products are available. Other natural options include tea tree oil, mayonnaise and olive oil.

Have you found a safe, effective method for dealing with head lice?

Also on MNN: 

Getting nitpicky about head lice
Skip the pesticides and try one of these natural methods for getting rid of lice.