Ah, summertime. Who among us has not reacted to the warmer weather by wanting to go down to the shore of the lake and enjoy a beautiful sunset? On the other hand, who among us has acted on this desire, only to realize that it is shared by several million swarming insects, all of whom think of us as their dinner? Insects and their bites can very quickly erode the joys of a summer vacation. And they are not just annoying; they can actually be dangerous – mosquitoes spread encephalitis and the West Nile Virus, and in some areas ticks spread Lyme Disease. How do we deal with the fact that "vacation season" is also "insect season?"
Prevention is not only more effective than cure, it's easier
To some extent, a little common sense is the best insect repellent. Try to avoid going outdoors during the "peak swarming times" of sunset and early mornings. But since these are the times that we want most to be enjoying the outdoors, too, this is not always practical. So finding an effective insect repellent and using it is more effective.
When it comes to evaluating insect repellents, there are two main criteria. The first is "Does it keep insects away?" and the second is "For how long?" The clear winners for many years have been commercial preparations that contain a chemical called DEET (diethyl toluamide). Although its use is not recommended for children under the age of two months, it has been studied by the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency since 1957, and both have rated it as safe and without provable negative side effects.
Which insect repellents are most effective?
Consumer Reports has recently tested many common commercially-available insect repellents, and their "top four" all contain DEET, in varying percentages.
All of these worked to keep insects away, and for up to seven hours. Note that although some brands contain higher percentages of DEET, this did not make them any more effective.
In recent years an alternative to DEET has appeared in picaridin, used in percentages ranging from 7% to 20%. This is the agent used in Consumer Reports' sixth most effective brand, Natrapel 8-Hour. Another alternative to DEET is IR3535, which is the basis of the seventh-rated repellent in the same study, Avon Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard.
For those who prefer a more "natural," non-chemical repellent, interestingly enough the fifth-rated brand in the Consumer Reports study was the Repel brand, which is based on lemon eucalyptus oil. Whichever of these insect repellents you choose, remember to apply them before going outside, and to reapply them after six to seven hours.
What if you're reading this article too late, and you've already been bitten?
The swelling that follows an insect bite is an inflammation response that causes redness and tenderness, and will subside in time. But the itching…oh, the itching. What to do about it?
Itching is essentially a mild form of pain. It is caused by a histamine reaction, similar to allergies. Because of this, over-the-counter allergy medications (antihistamines) can help to reduce the itching on a systemic level. Locally, applications of ice or cold compresses can reduce both the swelling and the itching of most insect bites. If the bites are severe enough to cause real pain, analgesics such as aspirin, paracetamol, or ibuprofen may help, and your doctor may be able to prescribe topical ointments such as crotamiton creams or corticosteroids.
If you prefer more natural remedies, there are many. Tea tree oil and lavender oil can reduce both the inflammation and pain of insect bites, as can a little dab of honey or apple cider vinegar. Baking soda (sodium bicarbonate – made either into a paste with water or placed in your bath) is a natural alkaline that can help. The juice of both lemons and limes is anti-bacterial and anti-microbial, and can also reduce both itching and inflammation. And peppermint – either fresh or in oil form, can act as a cooling and soothing agent when applied to the bites.