Summertime calls most of us to spend time outdoors. Alas, bugs can be a real buzz-kill at best, and carriers of disease at worst. Additionally, most commercial insect repellants contain a chemical known as DEET, which should be used with caution, if at all. Many studies have found DEET to have harmful effects.
Fortunately, there are plenty of tricks to keeping biting bugs at bay, and they don’t involve applying toxic chemicals to your skin. There are also many natural remedies that can help take the sting out of your bites, should preventive methods fail.
The Most Common Offenders…
The featured article in Medical News Today1 offers an excellent and extensive overview of a wide variety of bug bites, their signs and symptoms and potential side effects, which can range from mild to severe (allergic reactions):
“When insects bite they release a form of saliva that can cause inflammation, blisters and irritation. Insect bite signs and symptoms vary, depending on the type of insect and the individual’s sensitivity.
While one person may just have a small, itchy lump that clears away in a few days, somebody else can have a more serious reaction, such as papular urticaria — crops of small papules and wheals, which may become infected or lichenified (thickened and leathery) because of rubbing and excoriation.”
WebMD also has a helpful “Bad Bugs Slideshow” to help you identify some 28 different types of bugs and their bites.2 Some of the most common biting insects include:
Fortunately, it’s fairly rare to catch diseases from most insect bites if you live in countries far away from the equator, such as northern parts of Europe, United States, and Canada. The closer you are to the equator, the risk of being bit by mosquitoes and other insects carrying diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness, yellow fever, encephalitis, West Nile virus and dengue fever increases.
Ticks, however, can spread human babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Lyme disease—one of the most serious and controversial epidemics of our time—regardless of your geographical location. To avoid ticks, make sure to tuck your pants into socks and wear closed shoes and a hat—especially if venturing out into wooded areas.
Simple Preventative Measures to Avoid Mosquito Bites
Mosquitoes are probably the most pervasive when it comes to biting bugs that can ruin an otherwise pleasant outing. There are over 3,000 different species of mosquitoes throughout the world, about 200 of which occur in the US. Naturally, the best way to avoid mosquito bites is to prevent coming into contact with them in the first place.
You can avoid most assaults by staying inside around dawn and dusk, which is when they are most active. If you must be out during those times, wear light-colored, long sleeved shirts and long pants, hats and socks. Mosquitoes are also thicker in shrubby areas and near standing water.
Body temperature and skin chemicals like lactic acid also attract mosquitoes, which explains why you’re more likely to be “eaten alive” when you’re sweaty, such as during or after exercise, so trying to stay as cool and dry as you can may help to some degree. You may also want to forgo bananas during mosquito season. According to Dr. Janet Starr Hull, “there’s something about how your body processes the banana oil that attracts these female sugar-loving insects.”
She also recommends supplementing with one vitamin B1 tablet a day from April through October, and then adding 100 mg of B1 to a B100 Complex daily during the mosquito season to make you less attractive to mosquitoes. Research also suggests that regularly consuming garlic or garlic capsules may help protect against both mosquito and tick bites. The American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA) has a helpful factsheet3 of things you can do to prevent mosquito breeding on your property. The Three D’s of protection from mosquitoes are:
- Drain—Mosquitoes require water in which to breed, so carefully drain any and all sources of standing water around your house and yard, including pet bowls, gutters, garbage and recycling bins, spare tires, bird baths and so on
- Dress—Light colored, loose fitting clothing offer the greatest protection
- Defend—While the AMCA recommends using commercial repellents, I highly recommend avoiding most chemical repellents, especially those containing DEET. Instead, try some of the natural alternatives suggested in this article
Bat houses are becoming increasingly popular since bats are voracious consumers of insects, especially mosquitoes. For more on buying a bat house or constructing one yourself, visit the Organization for Bat Conservation.4 Planting marigolds around your yard also works as a bug repellent because the flowers give off a fragrance that bugs do not like. This is a great way to ward off mosquitoes without using chemical insecticides. A simple house fan could also help keep mosquitoes at bay if you’re having a get-together in your backyard.
Steer Clear of Chemical Repellents, Especially DEET
Currently, DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) is used in more than 230 different products — in concentrations of up to an astounding 100 percent. If a chemical melts plastic or fishing line, it’s not wise to apply it to your skin — and that is exactly what DEET does.
Duke University Medical Center pharmacologist Mohamed Abou-Donia spent 30 years researching the effects of pesticides. He discovered that prolonged exposure to DEET can impair cell function in parts of your brain — demonstrated in the lab by death and behavioral changes in rats with frequent or prolonged DEET use. Children are particularly at risk for subtle brain changes because their skin more readily absorbs chemicals in the environment and chemicals more potently affect their developing nervous systems. Other potential side effects DEET exposure include:
|Memory loss||Headache||Muscle weakness and fatigue|
|Shortness of breath||Muscle and joint pain||Tremors|
Another potentially harmful chemical found in many bug sprays5 is permethrin. This chemical is a member of the synthetic pyrethroid family, all of which are neurotoxins. The EPA has even deemed this chemical carcinogenic, capable of causing lung tumors, liver tumors, immune system problems, and chromosomal abnormalities. Permethrin is also damaging to the environment, and it is particularly toxic to bees and aquatic life. It should also be noted that permethrin is highly toxic to cats.6 Even a few drops can be lethal to your feline pet. It is used as an ingredient in some topical flea products, so when you see “for dogs only” on the label, it likely contains permethrin. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently released an extensive review of the safety (or lack thereof) of virtually all bug repellant ingredients7.
Keeping Insects at Bay the Natural Way
Fortunately, there are highly effective repellents on the market comprised of natural botanical oils and extracts that are every bit as effective as DEET, but with none of the potentially harmful effects. You can also make your own repellent using:
- Cinnamon leaf oil (one study found it was more effective at killing mosquitoes than DEET)
- Clear liquid vanilla extract mixed with olive oil
- Wash with citronella soap, and then put some 100% pure citronella essential oil on your skin. Java Citronella is considered the highest quality citronella on the market
- Catnip oil (according to one study, this oil is 10 times more effective than DEET)8
Another option is to use the safe solution I have formulated to repel mosquitoes, fleas, chiggers, ticks, and other biting insects. It’s a natural insect spray with a combination of citronella, lemongrass oil, peppermint oil, and vanillin, which is a dynamite blend of natural plant extracts. In fact, an independent study showed my bug spray to be more effective than a product containing 100 percent DEET. And it’s safe for you, your children, and your pets.
Treating Bites and Stings with Herbs and Other Natural Agents
Once you’ve been bitten, the objective changes from repelling to treating the itch and inflammation caused by the bite. Fortunately, many herbs and other natural agents are soothing to the skin, and many have anti-inflammatory properties. So for your occasional mosquito bites, try one of the following:
|Aloe vera: It contains over 130 active compounds and 34 amino acids that are beneficial to your skin.||Calendula: An herb with soothing, moisturizing and rejuvenating properties.||Chamomile: The most soothing herb of all, whether used in a tea or applied to the skin. It is rich in the bioflavonoids apigenin, luteolin and quercetin.|
|Cinnamon: In addition to possibly repelling mosquitoes, cinnamon has antibacterial and antifungal properties.||Cucumbers are helpful for reducing swelling.||Raw organic honey: An especially powerful variety is Manuka honey from New Zealand, made from bees that feed on flowers of the Manuka bush, also known as the “Tea Tree.”|
|Lavender: One of the most popular essential oils for its calming scent, lavender is as antimicrobial as it is soothing.||Neem oil: Effective against fungal conditions, boils, eczema, and ringworm, and it would undoubtedly help an insect bite as well.||Tea Tree oil: Helpful for healing cuts, burns, infections and a multitude of other skin afflictions. It is also a good antimicrobial, including fungal infections.|
|Basil contains camphor and thymol, two compounds that can relieve itching. Either crush up some fresh herb and apply directly to the bite, or buy the essential oil.||Lemon and lime both have anti-itch, antibacterial and antimicrobial actions. Avoid applying citrus juices to your skin when outdoors however, as blistering can occur when exposed to sunlight.||Peppermint—the cooling sensation can block other sensations, such as itching, providing temporary relief. Either the essential oil or crushed fresh leaves will do.|
Swiping a cooled tea bag over your bites can also help, as the tannins in the tea acts as an astringent, reducing swelling. For bites all over your body, try soaking in a bathtub of warm water with two to three cups of apple cider vinegar added to it. The acidity of the vinegar can help stop the maddening itch. Alternatively, dissolve some baking soda in your bath and soak for about 30 minutes. You can also mix some baking soda with a small amount of water or witch hazel to create a paste, and apply directly to the bite. The witch hazel works synergistically with the baking soda, making for a more potent mix to reduce swelling.
Hot or Cold Therapies Can Take the Sting Out of a Bug Bite
Using either ice or heat are other options that can help ease the discomfort associated with bug bites. For example, an article inScientific American9 recommends using a simple ice pack to treat painful insect bites in lieu of analgesics. The article also explains why common topical steroids like hydrocortisone aren’t always the answer—one reason being that you’re not supposed to put them on broken skin.
According to an article published in the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin10 just last year, there is also little direct evidence supporting the efficacy of commercial preparations for insect bites, including antihistamines and topical corticosteroids. The authors concluded that the best course of action for mild local reactions is to simply clean the area and apply a cold compress.
Alternatively, applying heat directly to the bite also appears to relieve itchiness. One simple way is to apply a heated spoon directly to the area, as demonstrated by Lifehacker.com.11 Just hold the spoon under hot tap water for about a minute to heat the metal, then press it against the bite for a couple of minutes. Naturally, make sure the spoon is not too hot. It shouldn’t be scalding enough to actually hurt, so please use some common sense, and make sure to test it on your own skin before applying the heated utensil to a child. The receptors that respond to heat are the same ones that respond to cold, so you will likely achieve the same benefits with a metal spoon taken from your freezer, or simply rubbing ice cubes on it. I have also found that covering the bite with tape works really well to suppress the itch.
A more high-tech version of a heated spoon is the Therapik—a handheld wand that provides targeted heat for the treatment of itchy bites from a range of insects, including mosquitoes, bees, wasps, hornets, black flies, ants, fleas, ticks, chiggers, as well as jellyfish and stinging nettles. Gizmodo12 tested it, and determined that it works as advertised, giving it four out of five stars:
“You put the tip of the Therapik onto your bug bite, then you press and hold down the button. The tip uses light to heat the bite up. You hold it there for as long as you can take it, up to a minute. The burning sensation gets pretty intense after 30 seconds or so… It actually works! Mosquito bites (the only thing we tested it with) stopped itching within a few seconds of taking it off, and in most cases they never itched again. We are officially stunned. … It works on the principle that most insect venom is thermolabile (sensitive to heat). Therapik claims to deliver “heat in the precise temperature range necessary to deactivate the venom from over 20,000 different species of insects and sea creatures.”
A German study13 published in 2011 confirms the hypothesis of such claims. Testing another medical device called Bite Away, they concluded that:
“Locally administrated concentrated heat leads to fast amelioration of symptoms [swelling, pruritus and pain]. Usually an absence of symptoms is noticeable 10 minutes after administration. Pain reduction is the dominant effect.”
To Enjoy the Outdoors, a Little Preparation and Planning Can Go a Long Way
With a little planning and preparation, you should be able to enjoy the outdoors without getting eaten alive. Remember the Three D’s of protection from mosquitoes: drain, dress, and defend. Eliminating the breeding grounds for mosquitoes is the first step to limiting their numbers. Planting marigolds around your yard and maybe installing a bat box or two can also go a long way toward preventing them in the first place.
When it comes to defense, I recommend avoiding harsh chemical concoctions and experimenting with some natural alternatives instead. Some may work better than others for each individual, as mosquitoes in particular are attracted to certain biochemical components in your skin.
Should your preventive measures fail, there are well over a dozen different home remedies that can help, from herbs to baking soda to ice packs or heat, whether in the form of a heated or cold spoon, compress, or electronic gadget, or maybe even just a piece of tape.
Sources and References
- 1 Medical News Today December 16, 2009
- 2 Webmd.com Bad Bugs Slideshow
- 3 Mosquito.org Factsheet (PDF)
- 4 Batconservation.org
- 5 Time July 17, 2013
- 6 Richardson J A. (March 1, 2000); Permethrin hazards for cats” ASPCA Veterinary Poison Control Center
- 7 Environmental Working Group, Bug Repellents Report (PDF)
- 8 Science Daily August 28, 2001
- 9 Scientific American April 16, 2012
- 10 Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin 2012;50:45-48
- 11 Lifehacker.com June 30, 2013
- 12 Gizmodo August 16, 2012
- 13 Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2011; 4: 191–196