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Mosquito Bites: How to Stop Those Mozzies in Their Tracks

Visiting a tropical country may be the dream of a lifetime, but you don’t want to transform it into a nightmare of itching and scratching - or worse.

Lots of things bite, but the mosquito is the most common. It may be harmless in cooler climates but in some parts of the world, it can be lethal. You should do everything in your power to avoid malaria, dengue and now Zika.

Mosquito bitesThe mosquito, so seemingly innocuous yet so dangerous

So how do you protect yourself from mosquitoes?

You keep them from biting you, and there are several ways you can do that.

You can use a mosquito net when you sleep, making sure the tiny beasts don’t nibble away at you in the night. Turning on the air conditioning, if there is any, helps too.

You can also make sure your body is covered, especially at dawn and dusk. That means wearing socks, long sleeves and trousers when mosquitoes are most present).

Or, and this is the most common choice, slather a product all over yourself that will kill or maim mosquitoes or make them escape in horror.

What are the best mosquito repellents?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), four main products work to keep mosquitoes away: Picaridin (known as icaridin outside the US), oil of lemon eucalyptus and something called IR3535 and, of course, DEET.

I am not a medical expert, just another traveler. Everything I quote below does come from experts, however. At the end of this page you’ll find some resources and links to articles so you can make up your own mind.

Let’s look at each in turn.

Picaridin is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). It is considered less toxic than DEET (whose toxicity is still being debated). It evaporates from skin faster, doesn’t irritate the eyes and isn’t as strong smelling. A working group from the Environmental Protection Agency considers it a good alternative to DEET.

Products containing picaridin include Natrapel Bug Spray (recommended by the Audubon Society) and Sawyer’s Fisherman Formula

Mosquito bites - picnicMosquitoes are often attracted to food and fragrances

Oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) is one of several natural oils recommended as a mosquito repellent. At slightly stronger concentrations, some tests have shown that OLE is as effective as DEET. It doesn’t last as long, however, nor is it effective against West Nile virus, sand flies and 'no-see-ums'. Other oils include citronella, soybean oil and geranium oils and while they may be less likely to cause side effects, you do have to apply them quite often.

Oil-based products include Repel, Bugs Be Gone and NOW Essential Oils. One alternative health website recommends such oils as cinnamon leaf, vanilla (mixed with olive oil), and catnip oil.

The third common mosquito repellent is IR3535, a potent substance that can irritate your eyes and harm plastic. Still, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Working Group says it poses few other safety risks. (Really? But dissolves plastic?) It is considered as good as DEET against deer ticks and some of the mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus.

Products containing IR3535 include Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard and Coleman SkinSmart.

Mosquito bites - smoke and coilsCoils and smoke will help but are no substitute for repellent when malaria mosquitoes are around

And finally, everyone’s favorite whipping boy, DEET, the most common mosquito and tick repellent and possibly the most controversial. While health authorities admit it is strong and can damage plastic and rubber, they still consider it safe - although they do admit that in large doses or over time it can produce adverse reactions in about one per 100 million persons. (‘They’ are the CDC, the EPA and the WHO.)

That said, DEET is known to irritate eyes and used in large doses or for a long period of time it can produce neurological damage but - extremely rarely, with adverse reactions of about

According to the EPA, “DEET is generally safer than many people assume and remains a viable option for people in areas infested with disease-carrying pests.” The big advantage of DEET of course is that it lasts a long time so you have to apply it less often and it is more effective.

Still, DEET has significant critics. A study by Duke University pharmacologist Mohamed Abou-Donia details an extensive list of neurological damage caused by DEET and other conventional insecticides, from memory loss to tremors to slurred speech. French studies say it can harm animals, children and pregnant women.

You’ll have to make up your own mind: is it truly safe, or is this an example of business funding science and coming up with ‘acceptable’ results? I do use DEET on occasion, but I spray it on my hands and then rub it on - I never apply it directly to my body. But I’d welcome alternatives that really work.

Products containing DEET include Cutter BackwoodsOFF! and Ultrathon.

These four products are those officially recommended by the CDC but there is one more: permethrin. The FDA approved it recently although it’s in widespread use in Europe and Asia. The EU, however, lists it as an endocrine disruptor, and it's been shown to cause tremors in dogs and cats, according to the National Pesticide Information Center. Having read this, and having used permethrin, I am concerned. One note: I would only use it on my clothes, never on my skin. A product containing permethrin is Sawyer Premium.

Environmental concerns about DEET

Some of the major concerns people voice around DEET are environmental.

When DEET breaks down into nature, what’s left behind is less toxic that the DEET itself. But DEET is used often so it does make its way into waste water and through that into other waters. It can be toxic to fish and insects at extremely high levels but isn’t considered toxic to birds.

According to an EPA review in 2014, DEET meets current safety standards - although there is plenty we don’t know. “We continue to believe that the normal use of DEET does not present a health concern.” More tests are planned and who knows - they may reveal something else.

The Sierra Club concurs, arguing that malaria or West Nile virus or Lyme disease (from black-legged ticks) are far worse dangers than DEET - which, it says, is toxic to household pets so don’t use it around your cats. (It has been known to kill cats.)

Right. Your choice.

A few mosquito avoidance tips and alternatives to DEET and other powerful chemicals

  • Stay where there is a breeze - mosquitoes blow away easily. A simple fan will help get rid of the worst of them. Air conditioning helps too.

  • Do not forget your mosquito net or tent. These are super-efficient and will at least protect you at night.

  • Wear clothes with tight weave to make it really hard for mosquitoes to get through to your skin. Sun protection clothes will usually do the trick.

  • Mosquitoes apparently dislike light colours so ditch the dark fashions.

  • They and other insects may, conversely, like perfume so make sure your deodorants and shampoos aren’t fragrant.

  • When it comes to DEET, anything higher than 50% probably won’t provide additional protection.

  • Wearing sunscreen? Put it on first. When it’s dry, apply the repellent. The CDC suggests you stay away from products that contain both repellent and sunscreen.

  • Try a small amount of repellent on your skin to check for allergies before slathering yourself.

  • Stay away from stagnant water. Mosquitoes love it. 

  • And of course… cover up as much as you can, especially at dawn or dusk (although some mosquitoes do hang around all day). Use repellent only on the exposed bits.

In 2015, almost half a million people died from malaria. Half a million cases of dengue develop into hemorrhagic fever, killing 25,000 a year. And the impacts of Zika have been well documented. You have to pit this data against the impact of repellent to make up your mind.

If you'd like to read more for yourself

Popular Science: Is DEET Safe to Use?

National Pesticide Information Center: DEET Fact Sheet

EPA: DEET Hub

Sierra Club: Keeping Bugs (and Bears) at Bay

National Wildlife Federation: Better Ways to Swat Mosquitoes and Bye Bye Bugs

Green America: Living Green

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