August 13, 2016

Bad Bugs


Second to traffic, the risk of playing outside that I worry about most is the harm that can come from bugs. I’m not squeamish. I’ve held my share of roly polies and caterpillars, and I’ve rescued plenty of good spiders. The bugs I’m talking about here, of course, are ticks and mosquitoes.

Right now there’s a lot of talk about the Zika virus spread by mosquitoes, and while there have been cases of transmission reported in south Florida, Zika outbreaks in most of the US are unlikely. Of course, there’s also West Nile virus, St. Louis encephalitis, Chikungunya, and other mosquito maladies to worry about. Since the chances of getting infected from any of these diseases are low – and having severe symptoms are even lower – I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about these worst-case scenarios. But incidental to the various diseases that mosquitoes spread, I don’t want my kids to get bitten because it’s so uncomfortable. When my kids have bites, they can’t get to sleep at night and wake up from the discomfort. Sometimes they scratch the welts so much they bleed. Aloe straight from our plant and Cetaphil lotion help some with this, but it’s better to avoid the bites in the first place.

Over the past two summers, we’ve used Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Natural Insect Repellent when we plan to be outside in grassy or wooded areas for any significant period of time. I have been happy with the performance of this particular repellant for our needs. We usually aren’t out for more than a couple of hours at a time, and we are not hiking deep into the woods. But we are on nature trails, at not-often-enough-mowed playgrounds and in backyards with water tables and toys that sometimes hold standing water. If I forget to spray, we definitely get bitten. NPR has a useful chart based on data from the Journal of Insect Science comparing different types of mosquito repellants’ effectiveness upon application and after four hours. A different brand of DEET-free lemon eucalyptus repellent does well in their study, as do the DEET-containing repellents. (They did not test the Repel one I have used, but Consumer Reports recommended it a while back.)

Here a few things to keep in mind when trying to avoid mosquitoes:

  • The more clothing you can wear to keep bare skin covered, the better. This is not very practical for my kids playing outside in 90 degree weather, but we do wear long shorts and avoid sleeveless shirts. Mosquitoes can bite through spandex (I didn’t know this), so looser clothes are better.

  • Spray repellant on exposed skin except for the face. To apply to the face, spray on hands and rub on face. You can spray clothing, too.

  • Wear shoes and socks instead of sandals, and spray the shoes, socks, and ankles. Some types of mosquitoes are attracted to the smell of feet, and they tend to bite areas of the body lower to the ground.

  • Remove standing water, which is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, from your yard or from areas where your kids play. We don’t have much of a yard where we live, but I am constantly emptying water from buckets, water tables, and various other containers when I am at my kids’ school and neighborhood playgrounds.

  • This probably won’t come as a surprise, but DEET and other repellants are toxic if swallowed, so keep the bottles out of reach of children. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) does not recommend using DEET on infants less than two months of age, and DEET concentrations used on any child should not exceed 30%. The CDC does not recommend using repellents with lemon eucalyptus on children under the age of three because of the possibility of a rash.

Ticks concern me more than mosquitoes because I know people who have Lyme disease and have seen its effects. (If you are not sufficiently worried about Lyme disease, then read the harrowing personal account of Dr. Neil Spector who experienced heart failure after years of misdiagnoses.)

The University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter Resource Center offers straightforward, easy-to-navigate information on different types of ticks, preventing bites, and tick removal. You can even report ticks you find on you or your pets in order to help them track tick activity in different regions of the US.

Here are some things to know about preventing tick bites and tick-borne illnesses:

  • Ticks usually crawl from the ground, up the body, and prefer to latch onto the head or neck. Because of this, it’s good to wear shoes, socks, and pants and to even tuck the pants into the socks.

  • Ticks can be as small as a grain of sand to the size of an apple seed – or even larger if they are engorged with blood.

  • Once attached, it usually takes at least twenty-four hours for a tick to transmit an infection. This means that thoroughly checking yourself and your kids for ticks each day, especially on days when you’ve spent time outdoors, can decrease your chances of being infected with any of the numerous diseases ticks carry.

  • If you are bitten, you should disinfect the area and use pointy tweezers to remove the tick, pulling upwards from the tick’s head. If the head remains attached, don’t worry; the tick can’t transmit disease without its body. Save the body of the removed tick and consider testing it for diseases. If your child had a tick that needs to be tested but insurance won’t cover it or if the child is uninsured, LymeAid4Kids offers a grant program that can help cover the cost.

  • The most effective chemical for repelling ticks is permethrin. It should be sprayed on clothes, not skin, and will last through four or five wash cycles. Permethrin repels ticks, making them drop off a treated area, and will eventually kill them. Permethrin is especially toxic to fish and cats.

So, go ahead. Go outside. But don’t get bitten out there!