For parents despairing over the profusion of head lice in their children, this could be the boon they were praying for.
Like most other vermin that are a blight on civilization as we know it, lice have also developed resistance to the various medications that modern science has come up with.
Contrary to myth, lice cannot fly or jump. They need direct hair-to-hair contact to pass from person to person. A single louse, it has been estimated, lays dozens of eggs, or nits (hence the term, nit-picking), over a 3-day period.
A new study published in the November edition of Pediatrics journal shows that mankind may have been scratching up the wrong head, reports the BBC. The study says a 30-minute blast of hot air can kill the little bugs, without any side-effects. The study was conducted on a custom-made contraption called the LouseBuster, developed by researchers from the University of Utah.
Co-inventor of the LouseBuster, Dr Dale Clayton, told the BBC that the device worked by drying the nits and lice out, but not by heating them which can be done at home using a hairdryer.
Lest one thinks it's the heat that does the lice in, Dr Clayton has a word of caution: The LouseBuster is 'actually cooler than a hairdryer, but requires twice as much airflow, and the special hand piece is critical because, unless you expose the roots of the hair, it doesn't work.'
The LouseBuster has gone into commercial development by a University of Utah spinoff company, Larada Sciences, of which Clayton is chief scientific officer. Patents are also pending on the LouseBuster technology. The contraption is expected to be on the market in two years' time.
Dr Clayton also had domestic help in his research. His kids, Mimi and Roger, volunteered to be infested with lice and were treated successfully.
How he stumbled on to the invention actually owes to the birds. His original research focuses on birds and the lice infesting them. When he moved to the University of Utah in 1996, he found the lice died out on the laboratory birds since Utah's air was too dry. This sparked off the idea that culminated in the LouseBuster, reports medicalnewstoday.com.
The scientists working on the project tried six variations of the LouseBuster, before settling for the one with the maximum effect, 80 per cent. Each of the six methods took 30 to 35 minutes each and used air at about 140 degrees Fahrenheit
The successful version entailed a plastic hand piece with 10 coarse teeth attached to a hose and raked through the hair while hot air blew in the opposite direction. All areas of the scalp were raked and exposed to hot air for at least 30 seconds. This version of the LouseBuster not only killed a larger proportion of lice than any of the other five methods, but also 98 percent of the louse eggs.
The LouseBuster, which cost $50,000 to develop, is 'particularly effective because it kills louse eggs, which chemical treatments have never done very well,' Dr Clayton says. 'It also kills hatched lice well enough to eliminate entire infestations. It works in one 30-minute treatment, whereas the chemical treatments require multiple applications one to two weeks apart.'
Dr Clayton was helped in the study by Brad Goates, a University of Utah medical student who wrote his master's thesis about the LouseBuster; Joseph Atkin, Kevin Wilding, Kurtis Birch and Michael Cottam, all of whom worked in his lab as undergraduates; and Sarah Bush, Clayton's wife who co-directs the Center for Alternate Strategies of Parasite Removal, a state-funded Center of Excellence working to commercialize the LouseBuster. Clayton, Atkin and Wilding co-invented the device.