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How to Choose an Insect Repellent

June 17, 2016

by Dyan Hes, MD

Everyday we turn on the news to hear about another outbreak. Lately all the news has been on Zika virus, a virus transmitted by the Aedes mosquito. This virus can be extremely dangerous for women of child bearing age and particularly, pregnant women. It causes microcephaly (small head) and a myriad of other birth defects, primarily effecting neurological development. Some obstetricians are recommending that women who have contracted Zika virus avoid pregnancy for anywhere between two and three years.

Currently, the only Zika virus cases in the US are in people who contracted it from mosquitoes abroad or via sexual transmission from a partner. However, we are only just entering mosquito season in the United States and we do not know if Zika virus will be spread by local mosquitos. Zika causes a flu like syndrome with rash,fever, pink eye, and joint pain. Only 20% of those infected will show symptoms. In some rare cases, people with Zika virus have developed Guillan-Barre Syndrome, which is an ascending paralysis that resolves with time. Be sure to check on the CDC website for regions of South America and the Caribbean with the Zika epidemic prior to travel.

When choosing an insect repellent for a child the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends using one with 25-30% DEET to repel the Aedes mosquito. More than 30% DEET does not offer better protection. Consumer Reports tested many types of repellents and found that the natural repellents containing plant oils were not at all effective in repelling these mosquitos and should not be used to prevent mosquito bites. Repellents containing 20% picaridin were the most effective in keeping the Aedes mosquitos away for up to eight hours. Products containing lemon eucalyptus (synthetic) were also effective in repelling the Aedes mosquito.

Parents are advised to apply insect repellent to their children’s clothing. Only apply it to exposed skin in small amounts. Do not apply repellent directly to a child’s face. Rub it on your hands and then apply to the face, avoiding the eyes, nose, and mouth. Do not apply insect repellent to infants under the age of 2 months. Use netting over a stroller, crib, or play gym to protect the youngest babies from mosquitos.

Zika is not the only insect born infection we have to worry about. Lyme disease, spread by ticks, it also very common in the Northeast, especially eastern Long Island and Connecticut.  Lyme disease is spread by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, carried by the deer tick. To prevent tick bites, insect repellent should have a minimum of 20% DEET.

Some materials are made with insect repellents added to them. These may be mosquito nets or clothes for hiking that contain permethrin. Permethrin is an insecticide and it should not be applied directly to skin but it is very safe in treated clothing.

It may seem a daunting task to choose the right insect repellent. All the above products mentioned have been found to be safe for children. It is very tempting to take the “natural route” when we are caring for children, but remember that natural insect repellents DO NOT prevent bites from these pesky critters and the benefits of a chemical based insect repellent far outweigh the risks of these diseases.

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