Evidence for double resistance to permethrin and malathion in head lice

Br J Dermatol. 1999 Sep;141(3):508-11. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2133.1999.03046.x.


A rising prevalence of head lice among school children and rising sales of insecticides with anecdotal evidence of their treatment failure, led us to examine whether head lice in Bristol and Bath were resistant to the insecticides available for treating head lice. Ten schools in Bristol and Bath were visited to collect field samples of head lice. A comparison was made of the survival rates of fully sensitive laboratory reared body lice and field samples of head lice on insecticide exposure. To confirm the in vitro relevance of these tests we performed supervised treatments of affected subjects with malathion or permethrin. There were significant differences (P < 10-6 Fishers exact test) between head and body lice survival for malathion and permethrin exposure, but not for carbaryl. There was an 87% failure rate for permethrin and a 64% failure rate for malathion with the topical treatment of a selected number of infested school children. We conclude that there is a high resistance to permethrin and malathion, but head lice remain fully sensitive to carbaryl. This is the first report of doubly resistant head lice. As permethrin, phenothrin (a very similar synthetic pyrethroid) or malathion are the active ingredients in all the over-the-counter head lice treatments in the U.K., then it is likely that head lice prevalence will continue to increase. The resistance against permethrin employed by the head louse is probably the kdr (knockdown resistance) mechanism, and an enzyme-mediated malathion-specific esterase is the likely mechanism against malathion.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carbaryl
  • Child
  • DDT
  • Drug Resistance, Multiple*
  • Humans
  • Insecticides*
  • Lice Infestations / drug therapy
  • Malathion*
  • Pediculus / drug effects*
  • Permethrin
  • Pyrethrins*
  • Scalp Dermatoses / drug therapy
  • Scalp Dermatoses / parasitology*
  • Single-Blind Method


  • Insecticides
  • Pyrethrins
  • Permethrin
  • DDT
  • Carbaryl
  • Malathion