Nothing can kill a good summer buzz like the buzz of mosquitoes. Nothing, that is, except the sight of a tick crawling up your leg. For some people, the fear of tick and mosquito borne diseases can put a serious damper on summer fun. But with some precautions, there’s no reason to slow down your outdoor enjoyment.
Know your risk
To start with, you have to know which foe you are fighting. While ticks and mosquitoes might seem scary in general, specific disease threats are different depending on your region. For example – Lyme disease, a tick borne infectious disease, isn’t (currently) as common in the outside of the upper Midwest and the Northeastern United States. Despite its name, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, another tick-borne infectious disease, is more common in the southeast United States. Tick Borne Relapsing fever is primarily in the western United States, and is mostly found in ticks when people sleep in rustic wooden cabins and can cause miscarriage in pregnant women. The West Nile Virus (transmitted by mosquitos) has a higher incident rate in the upper Mountain west.
None of this is to scare you – but instead, a reminder that yes, ticks and mosquito bite prevention should be taken seriously. But the risks shouldn’t damper your enjoyment of the outdoors. With some precautious, it’s possible to decrease your risk of diseases like Lyme and West Nile Virus.
Before we get into bug spray, one of your best defenses against bug bites will be your clothing. Ticks live in grassy, wooden areas so if your adventure takes you through meadows or fields, long pants, socks, and closed toe shoes are your best choice. Tucking your pants into your socks will give you an extra layer of protection as well.
You can also buy specially treated clothing to keep bugs at bay. Some companies sell clothes treated with permethrin – which you know by its brand name Nix, the anti-lice shampoo. Permethrin doesn’t keep mosquitos from landing on you, but it does render them unable to bite. Permetherin is also effective against ticks. “I’ve personally seen a tick climb up my leg and when he reached my skirt, he just crumpled and let go,” says Valerie, one of our team members. Ginny, another team member, says she never goes backpacking without a good bug net shirt like the Bugs Away Lumen Hoodie from Exofficio.
So is Permethrin safe? While some people are skeptical of any man-made chemical, the Environmental Protection Agency says that the carcinogen (cancer causing) risk from permethrin is below the agency’s level of concern. Research shows that the permethrin doesn’t really end up on the wearer’s skin regardless. The Centers for Disease Control says that permethrin is safe for kids two months and older.
You can treat your own clothing with permethrin, or buy factory treated clothes. Consumer Reports says that self-treated clothes will need to be re-treated about every six washings, while factory treated clothes can be effective until about their 70th trip through the washer.
Even if you are wearing permethrin treated clothes, you will still need a bug repellant for your exposed skin. DEET is far and away your best bet against bug bites. Yes, it is a chemical, but it is safe for kids over two months old as well as for pregnant women.
Granted, you will want to take some precautions: do not apply on cuts or scrapes, faces, or the hands of children who still put their hands in their mouth. The higher the concentration, the longer it lasts – so use the lowes concentration necessary for the amount of time you are spending outdoors. Do not use concentrations of DEET higher than 30% on children – it isn’t effective and can be toxic. Also do not use sunscreen with DEET – rubbing sunscreen into skin means more DEET is absorbed. It’s important to bathe kids after using DEET and wash any clothing that has been sprayed before wearing again.
The EPA says that DEET is effective against mosquitos and ticks and is safe to use, even on children. If you are recreating in an area with lots of ticks or mosquitos or a place with higher disease risks, it is your best choice. But if your kids don’t like the greasy feel or its odor, there are other options as well.
Picaridin is another synthetic insect repellent. It is considered safe by the CDC and EPA as well, but has not been studied for as many decades as DEET. Unlike DEET, it is non-greasy, odorless and does not dissolve plastics. It also is more likely to keep mosquitos from landing in the first place (whereas DEET prevents them from biting).
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is another CDC approved insect repellant, that can be as effective as DEET. In one study, Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus was still preventing more mosquito bites than most DEET spray after four hours.
While some people prefer using “natural” ingredients on their children, unlike DEET, OLE is not approved for use on children under three years of age. It’s also important to remember that oil of lemon eucalyptus is not a combination of lemon and eucalyptus oils. OLE is also different than lemon eucalyptus oil, meaning you can’t make it at home from a bottle of essential oil. The smell is strong and may be unpleasant to some sensitive kids.
One of the most important ways to stop the spread of tick-borne diseases is to thoroughly check children and yourself for any ticks or tick bites when you come back home. Don’t forget to look under arms, in groins, under breasts, under armpits, and thoroughly search hair. (Sitting in front of a movie while getting a mini-head massage was one of my favorite parts of summer as a kid). It’s important to do tick checks daily in the summer – I have even found one on my daughter after she was in the front yard for twenty minutes.
If you do find a tick, don’t panic. If it’s still crawling around and hasn’t bitten down, it hasn’t had a chance to transmit a disease yet. If it has bitten down, use tweezers and pinch close to the skin’s surface (you don’t want to risk leaving the head attached). Flush it down the toilet (do not crush it) and then wash your hands and the bite sight.
Whenever you find a tick attached to you or your children, note the date on the calendar immediately. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can be deadly, and it is important to start treatment as soon as symptoms begin. If you or your child develops a fever or a rash after being bitten by a ticket or spending time in a tick prone area, contact your doctor immediately and be sure to mention the tick bite. If the bite site develops a circular ring around it, contact your doctor to ask about Lyme disease.
There’s no reason to let bugs keep you and your kids from enjoying summer safely. But there’s bound to be a few bites that sneak through, so leave your favorite bug bite remedy in the comments!
Team Member Jackie is a coffee-lover, writer and a mom of a six year old, five year old and a 18 month old living in Helena, MT. She thought that hiking might help tame her children’s wild spirits, and co-leads a Hike it Baby branch. All that hiking only made her crew wilder, but in a good way. Before kids she enjoyed reading, knitting and baking, but now she enjoys making it to bedtime.
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