Mutant mosquitoes may conjure images of a sci-fi thriller, but they’re a reality for Harvard researchers. Those researchers have shown that releasing male mosquitoes that have been genetically modified to block females’ eggs from hatching can prevent diseases such as Zika or West Nile Encephalitis.
Until we become certain that interfering with the reproductive cycle of mosquitoes is the answer, we are left with a multimillion-dollar bug-repellent industry, as well as a lot of home remedies for protecting ourselves and our children from bug bites.
People will try many things to avoid getting bug bites, but most of them do not work. Dryer sheets tied to your chair? Nope. A nightly gin and tonic? Sorry to all those friends of mine who thought this was brilliant; it might prevent other things but does nothing to block bugs. Eating a banana, a pickle, garlic or any other food? No, sorry. Those persistent creatures are unaffected by your dietary choices.
So, what works AND is safe for your kids?
Let’s start with some rules that apply to all bug repellents, no matter what kind:
— They should not be used on babies under the age of 2 months.
— You need only a light covering of the skin, not a saturation
— Frequent reapplication is not necessary.
— Avoid enclosed spaces when using sprays of any sort due to effects on the lungs if inhaled.
— Apply sunscreen first, and remember that bug repellents can weaken the efficiency of sunscreen.
— Wash the skin completely after risk of exposure is completed.
In Lancaster County, it is not just mosquitoes we worry about, but ticks as well. Lyme disease has become common here and, while it is very treatable, it is best to prevent it. Studies show that the best protection against both mosquitoes and ticks (as well as biting flies, fleas and chiggers) comes from DEET (N,N-Diethyl-meat-toluamide).
DEET comes in multiple strengths ranging from 10% to 100%. Its efficiency for protection plateaus at about 30%, so most of the time anything stronger is unnecessary. Higher strengths do provide a slightly longer duration of protection, but 30% gives you about six hours of coverage — enough for most outdoor activities.
DEET products are safe for ages 2 months and up and are recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for the prevention of insect-related illnesses. Note that, although very rare, massive exposures can cause toxicity, so a concentration of 10% to 30% is recommended for children.
DEET products can irritate skin, especially in people who have eczema. Products that contain both sunscreen and DEET are not recommended, since it is necessary to reapply sunscreen frequently but reapplication is not usually needed for bug spray.
An alternative to DEET is Picardin. A common misconception is that it is a natural product made from pepper when, in fact, it is chemically manufactured. Picardin is safe for babies ages 2 months and up, and Picardin concentrations of 20% or higher have been shown to be as effective as DEET against mosquito bites.
Research supports that DEET is more effective in preventing tick bites, but Picardin has been shown to be less irritating to skin and may be a better choice for those with sensitive skin.
Other bug repellents, including citronella, eucalyptus oil and IR3535 (the trade name for Ethyl butylacetylaminopropionate) have not been shown to be as effective as DEET or Picardin, nor do they have a significantly higher safety profile. They are therefore not recommended.
A new industry has popped up in the last few years offering Permethrin-covered clothing. Permethrin is a medication used primarily to treat lice and scabies, and has not been found to be useful as a topical bug repellent. However, studies support the use of Permethrin-treated clothing to prevent mosquito and tick bites.
Sporting goods companies such as REI and Cabela’s have begun offering clothing treated with Permethrin that can withstand up to 70 laundry cycles, and there also are companies which will treat clothing you already own.
New research indicates the ultimate defense is to be wearing Permethrin-treated clothing over DEET repellent-treated skin: a true armor of sorts against our blood-sucking enemies.
- Dr. Pia Fenimore, of Lancaster Pediatric Associates, answers questions about children's health. You can submit questions at Features@LNPnews.com.