Head lice attached to hair follicles are extremely difficult to detect and even more cumbersome to kill. Infestation of these blood sucking parasites is generally dealt with chemicals or a specialized nit come. But now there’s good news: Fraunhofer researchers are in the process of developing a technological comb that will efficiently eradicate head lice by simply using plasma – no biocide agents or chemicals will be involved.

A prototype will soon be presented at the MEDICA exhibition in Düsseldorf.

Conventional Remedies For Head Lice

Head lice infestation is fairly common among children between the ages of three and 10. Head lice are essentially parasites that feed on blood and are easily transferred from scalp to scalp, often causing epidemics in daycare centers and elementary schools. Head lice infestations cause excessive itching and are extremely difficult to get rid of.

The usual remedies include various chemicals, such as anti-lice shampoos, gels and lotions. These products are typically massaged into damp hair and scalp after a bath, followed by combing the hair using a nit comb. However, this process does not kill the eggs (nits) of the lice, and the treatment needs to be repeated every week or so.

As for children, the entire procedure is unpleasant, embarrassing and at times painful. Moreover, parents are usually hesitant in using chemical products for fear of harmful active ingredients. Also, with extended use, the lice and their eggs tend to develop resistance towards the chemicals.

Developing An Alternative Treatment

Considering all the above mentioned problems, researchers at the Application Center for Plasma and Photonics of the Fraunhofer Institute for Surface Engineering and Thin Films IST in Göttingen, Germany thought of developing an alternate chemical-free treatment. Using cold atmospheric pressure plasma, they were able to kill parasites effectively without any harm or pain. They came up with a specialized plasma lice comb for this application, the development of which was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation.

How The Technological Comb Would Work

The main element is the high-voltage generator. The latter delivers impulses to the teeth of the comb, which function as electrodes. Air between two electrodes is ionized via these high-voltage impulses, generating plasma. “Plasma is an aggregate state that develops when energy is added to a gas or gas mixture”, explained Prof. Viöl, Director of the Application Center for Plasma and Photonics.

The high voltage is delivered is tiny bursts, utilizing just enough energy to give momentum to the tiny electrons without heating the heavy gas particle pulses. This ensures that the plasma remains at room temperature and kills lice and nits without scalding or burning hair or scalp. “After a single treatment, half of the lice are already dead and the rest vanish within a day”, said Viöl.

Efficacy And Prospects

Extensive research into the efficacy and safety of the technological comb was carried out in collaboration with a research institute. “The plasma comb has already been introduced in regional pediatric offices and can also be used like a normal comb”, Viöl explained.

What’s even more appealing is that the comb can be used safely by patients of asthma and allergies, since it is free of aggressive active ingredients that might trigger symptomatic outbreaks. This aspect also makes it environment friendly.

The technology is now being patented and small-scale production is being initiated. “By altering the shape of the comb and the distance between the teeth, it can also be used for treating infestations in house pets”, Viöl predicts.

The use of this comb as a healthcare device in developing countries is also a great prospect, especially where head lice transmit dangerous bacteria such as typhoid or five-day fever pathogens.