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The news about the Zika virus possibly causing microcephaly in infants has everyone talking about — and worried about — mosquitoes. It’s not just the Zika virus that can be spread by mosquitoes; these insects also spread other illnesses, such as malaria, dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever, West Nile virus, eastern equine encephalitis, and Japanese encephalitis.
It should be said that most people who are bitten by mosquitoes don’t get sick with anything. But if you are living in or traveling to an area where these illnesses are prevalent, it’s important to know the four best ways to protect yourself and your family:
- Choose your clothes wisely. Lightweight long sleeves and long pants are your best bet; spraying clothing with insect repellent may help even more.
- Create barriers between you and the mosquitoes. Staying inside, in air-conditioned buildings or buildings with good screens that don’t let in mosquitoes, is one way to do that. You can also use mosquito netting; you can use it around beds and also around baby strollers. Spraying the netting with insect repellent is a good idea.
- Watch out for standing water. That’s where mosquitoes breed. If you can empty it out, do that. If you can’t, don’t hang out near it.
- Use insect repellents. The most effective one is DEET (N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide). Mosquitoes don’t like how it smells, so they stay away from it. The higher the percentage of DEET in the repellent, the longer the protection: 10% protects for a couple of hours, 20% about twice that.
How to use insect repellent effectively and safely
DEET does have side effects. The most common one is skin irritation, and it’s important not to use it on areas with scratches, cuts, or rashes. If ingested, it can cause nausea or vomiting. Ingesting large amounts of it, or using high percentages for long periods of time, can lead to neurologic problems such as seizures, but this is very rare.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that percentages up to 30% are safe in children — but you shouldn’t use it on babies younger than 2 months old. For best protection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using at least 20%.
There are other insect repellent options, too:
- Oil of lemon eucalyptus (or PMD, the man-made version), which can be very effective and is safe. It shouldn’t be used on children under 3 years old, however — it’s not well-studied enough.
- Picaridin, which can be very effective against mosquitoes (but not so much against ticks — so keep that in mind if you need protection against both). It can cause mild skin irritation or irritation of the eyes if you get some there.
- 2-undecanone (IBI-246), a chemical naturally found in various plants. It can protect for up to 4-5 hours and is nontoxic.
- IR-3535, which is the active ingredient in Avon insect repellents (and some others as well). It lasts for about 2 hours. It can cause eye irritation if you spray it there by accident, but is otherwise very safe.
The Environmental Protection Agency has a great tool to help you find the insect repellent that works best for your particular situation. No matter what you use:
- Make sure a grownup does the spraying.
- Never spray directly on the face; spray it on your hands and use your hands to apply it to the face (and then wash your hands!)
- Always spray in an open area, to limit how much you end up breathing in.
- Reapply if truly needed, but do so sparingly.
- When you come home at the end of the day, wash everyone up well with soap and water — and be sure to wash any sprayed clothing before it’s worn again.
To learn more about mosquito-borne diseases and how to protect yourself, visit the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.