Bug Spray: What’s Safe? What Works?

By Michael Lasalandra
BIDMC Correspondent


Summer is here and with it comes the bugs — mosquitoes and ticks in particular. Bites from either can cause nasty illnesses. So what’s the best way to protect yourself?


Dr. Jennifer Mitty, Infectious Disease Specialist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, says that one of the most effective ways to repel both mosquitoes and ticks is to apply a repellent containing at least 20 percent DEET.


“If you want to protect yourself against both, DEET is the way,” she says.


Products containing DEET include Off, Sawyer, Cutter and Ultrathon.


There are other products available, like Picaridin, oil of lemon eycalyptus, and IR3535, but they are shorter acting and more effective against mosquitoes, she says. Mosquitoes can carry the West Nile and EEE virus, while ticks, especially deer ticks, can cause Lyme disease among other illnesses.


The package insert should be consulted regarding the use of these products in children but in general, DEET appears to be safe for children older than two months. However, Dr. Mitty notes that oil of lemon eucalyptus should not be used on children under the age of three.


“You want to use repellent any time you are going to be around these bugs,” she says.


For mosquitoes, that is at dawn and dusk. For ticks, it is any time you are out in the woods.


The repellent should applied to any exposed areas of the body, but should not be put on areas where there is a cut or open wound. Also, do not put them on areas around the mouth or eyes, she says. When applying to the face, first put the repellent on your hands and then administer to the face. And don’t let children apply it to themselves as they often put their hands in their mouths.


Once inside, the repellent should be washed off.


Another useful product is permethrin, which can be applied to clothing to repel bugs. It can also kill them if they do land on your clothes. There are also some clothes sold that are pre-treated with permethrin. Once treated, your clothes may be worn and even washed up to a month before they need to be treated again. Permethrin should never be applied directly to the skin.


In addition, it is important to wear long sleeves and long pants when going out at dawn or dusk or if going hiking in the woods, Dr. MItty notes. Golfers, particularly hackers who are prone to hitting the ball into the woods, should also take these precautions, she says. Other protective measures include tick checks and the use of mosquito netting.


While the recommended repellents have been deemed safe by the government, they can sometimes cause a rash. If this happens, the product should be washed off and its use discontinued, according to the CDC.


Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.