Bug bites are irritating to say the least, but recently, the threat of mosquitoes has taken a more serious turn. The spread of the Zika virus in Latin America and Pacific island nations and its worrying connection to serious birth defects when contracted by pregnant women has been raising concerns among travelers to affected countries as well as here at home as temperatures heat up. And it’s not just Zika we have to worry about — mosquitoes in Glenview have already tested positive for West Nile virus this season. Read on for the best ways to protect yourself and your family.
Dr. Mia A. Taormina, DO, FACOI, a specialist in infectious diseases, says that while at time of interview there are no domestically acquired cases of Zika in the continental U.S., because of the distribution of the Zika-carrying Aedes species mosquitoes, we can expect to see cases of Zika acquired in the U.S. in the coming months. “Additionally, while there are no current travel restrictions, I am still advising travelers to the southern U.S. to use FDA-approved mosquito repellents during the day as well as wear long shirts and pants when able,” Taormina says. “Aedes species mosquitoes are daytime biters so the greatest risk would be during daytime outdoors activities. Aedes mosquitoes are also poor flyers, so planning deep-water activities (sailing, snorkeling, etc.) during the daytime as opposed to hikes, etc. could help limit exposure to these mosquitoes.”
For pregnant women, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends a repellent with picaridin (20 percent concentration), IR3535 (20 percent concentration) or DEET (20 to 30 percent concentration) as the risk of Zika infection is far more serious than the side effects of chemical repellents, when used as directed. Know that higher concentrations don’t mean the product is stronger, only that it lasts longer. Taormina recommends DEET for pregnant women. Alternatively, she says that a non-DEET component such as IR3535, which is the active ingredient in Avon Skin So Soft products, can be considered. Wash your hands immediately after applying repellent and wash repellent-coated skin at the end of the day.
If you’re opposed to DEET, picaridin is a good alternative as it has less serious side effects than DEET and is odorless. Picaridin is a synthetic ingredient, made to resemble the compound piperine, which comes from black pepper plants.
Another effective ingredient is oil of lemon eucalyptus (also known as PMD or para-methane-diol), which comes from the gum eucalyptus tree and is found in repellents like Repel. Natural lemon eucalyptus oil is not the same as oil of lemon eucalyptus. Like picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus has fewer known side effects than DEET.
Mosquito repellents are not recommended for babies younger than 2 months and products containing oil of lemon eucalyptus should not be used on children younger than 3 years. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved oil of lemon eucalyptus for pregnant women, while the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not advise using it on children or pregnant women. We’ll err on the side of caution and advise pregnant women and kids to skip it and reach for a repellent with a different primary ingredient.
For children, Taormina says products containing DEET (10 to 30 percent concentration) remain the mainstay recommendation for mosquito prevention and can be used on babies as young as 2 months. Use a lower concentration of repellent if kids will be outside for only an hour or two. If children are going to be outdoors longer, use a repellent with a higher concentration of DEET. (Remember, the higher concentration means it will last longer.) As a rule of thumb, repellent with DEET should not be applied more than once a day. It’s important to wash children’s hands when they come indoors and wash all clothing before it’s worn again.
A recent study by Consumer Reports tested multiple repellents to find the ones that were most effective at keeping Aedes mosquitoes away. Of the products tested, the repellents that contained 20 percent picaridin and 30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus kept mosquitoes at bay for a minimum of seven hours and deer ticks away for six hours. It’s vital to pay attention to the concentration of the product as spray that contained only 5 percent picaridin performed worse than the 7 percent DEET product tested. Not worth using? Consumer Reports found that products made from natural plant oils such as California Baby Natural Bug Blend and EcoSmart Organic couldn’t stop mosquito bites for even an hour and some failed immediately.
Finally, when asked if genetics or blood type play any part in our attraction to mosquitoes, Taormina explains, “There isn’t too much we can do about biology and genetics, for example, mosquitoes are most attracted to those with Type O blood and least attracted to persons with Type A blood. This being said, mosquitoes are also drawn to fragrant perfumes, sweet-smelling lotions, dark clothing (blue, black, red) and at least one study shows that mosquitoes are more drawn to persons consuming beer. The best prevention would be to remember to wear light-colored clothing and not use perfumes or sweet-smelling lotions while traveling. Otherwise perhaps consider a summer pinot grigio over that ice-cold beer?”
Repellent Cheat Sheet
For pregnant women:
- Off! Deepwoods VIII (25 percent DEET)
- Sawyer Fisherman’s Formula Picaridin (20 percent picaridin)
- Natrapel 8-Hour(20 percent Picaridin)
- Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus Picaridin (10 percent picaridin)
- Off! Deepwoods VIII (25 percent DEET)
- Repel Scented Family (15 percent DEET)
- Natrapel 8-Hour(20 percent picaridin)
Adult? No baby on the way? Try:
- Repel Lemon Eucalyptus (30 percent oil of lemon eucalyptus)
- Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus IR3535 Expedition (20 percent insect repellent active ingredients)
If you want completely chemical-free:
- Badger Natural Mosquito Repellent is made from essential oils, certified organic, 100 percent natural and DEET-free. The ratings and reviews are overwhelmingly positive. The Honest Company Bug Spray is also DEET-free, hypoallergenic and known to keep bugs away for up to four hours.
- Note: You will want to re-apply chemical-free repellents more often.
*Use this EPA tool to find the repellent that’s right for you.