Keeping Bugs Away: 5 Things You Need To Know

The other day, as dusk fell on an afternoon outdoor party, my kids started swatting and itching. Oh, that’s right, I thought: it’s mosquito season. I remembered hearing about West Nile virus being found in some mosquitoes and kicked myself for not bringing bug spray.

At the same party, a friend showed me a rash on her son’s leg. By the next day, it had turned into a classic Lyme disease rash.

Definitely bug season.

If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to get smart about preventing mosquito and tick bites. Here’s what you need to know:

1. The best protection against both mosquitoes and ticks is DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide). This stuff really works (the smell of it keeps the bugs away). The higher the percentage of DEET, the longer it works: 10 percent works for a couple of hours and 20 percent for about four hours. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, up to 30 percent is safe on kids older than 2 months (read the label to see how much DEET is in the product).

2. DEET has risks. The most common risk is skin irritation (breathing the stuff in isn’t so great either, so be sure to apply it in an open area and avoid the mouth and eyes), but there is also a (small) risk of effects on the brain, including seizures. DEET is still your best bet if you are going to be somewhere with lots of ticks, or if health officials are warning about diseases in mosquitoes. Be sure to apply it carefully, don’t put it on skin that’s cut or scraped and use the percentage you need for the time you’ll be out. (Don’t buy combination sunscreen and DEET products, as reapplying sunscreen is good but reapplying DEET is not).

3. There are some effective alternatives to DEET.  They include:

  • Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (the man-made version is called PMD). This works pretty well against both mosquitoes and ticks, for up to six hours and can be a good alternative to DEET. However, it’s not recommended for kids under 3 years.
  • 2-undecanone (methyl-nonyl-ketone, IBI-246). This is a natural chemical found in many plants. It protects against mosquitoes for about four hours and against ticks for two hours. It also repels dogs and cats, so keep that in mind if you are bringing your dog on that hike.
  • Picaridin. This works well against mosquitoes, but not ticks.
  • IR-3535, the active ingredient in Avon’s insect repellents. Works against ticks and mosquitoes for about two hours.
  • Citronella and catnip oil (and other oils like soybean). These do give some protection, so worth mentioning, but not for all that long and may not protect against ticks.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a great tool on their website: you can put in what you want protection against, for how long and in which repellent you are interested, and it will give you options (including brand names, making shopping easier).

4. Some stuff really doesn’t work. There’s not much point in using:

  • Bug zappers and ultrasonic devices
  • Avon Skin-So-Soft (the kind without added repellent)
  • Wristbands soaked in repellents (might work for the wrists, but that’s it)
  • Garlic or vitamin B1 taken by mouth

5. There are other ways besides repellents to protect against ticks and mosquitoes

  • Dress your kids in light-colored clothing (spraying them with insect repellent may help)
  • Use lightweight long-sleeved shirts and pants, especially at dusk and dawn and when outside in bug-infested areas.
  • Standing water is where mosquitoes lay eggs—be aware of that when outdoors, and empty out buckets and kiddie pools and other such water collections regularly.
  • To avoid ticks, walk in the center of trails
  • Keep up with the yard work: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), keeping the lawn mowed, clearing away brush and leaf litter, stacking woodpiles, and removing old furniture and trash can help prevent ticks in your yard.

If you want to learn more, the CDC has lots of information about ticks and mosquitoes and what you can do to prevent—and identify—any illnesses they might cause.