It’s bug time in Tennessee! That means that in addition to being a nuisance, biting bugs such as ticks and mosquitoes introduce a risk of spreading serious disease.
This potential is very real. Lyme disease, as well as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, are transmitted by tick bites and have very serious health effects. Although Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) sounds as if the disease is limited to the Rocky Mountain area, Tennessee is among the states with the highest reported rates of incidence of RMSF.
It is also important to note that we are entering the season of the highest incidence of RMSF. April through October is when the incidence is the highest and mid-summer is the highest of the year.
Ticks are very widespread in our area. They usually are found in brushy areas or areas with tall grass, but can be found anywhere.
Ticks are usually found within three feet of the ground. They do not jump, fall or leap onto people. The ticks that are awaiting a mammal host tend to position themselves onto the tips of tall grass or shrubby plants with their forelegs outstretched waiting for an animal or human to brush against the plant.
Perhaps a greater risk than diseases that are transferred through tick bites are the diseases risked by encountering mosquito bites. Although the most concerning risk in Tennessee remains the West Nile Virus, a new disease being spread here from the Caribbean called chikungunya fever has become a new threat.
The best protection against ticks as well as mosquitoes is to regularly use a reliable bug repellent. Note that the key word reliable is present in that advice.
This is an important aspect of this story. Although there are various recommendations for “all-natural” bug repellents out there and widely promoted on the web and in apps such as Facebook, unfortunately most of these homemade mixes don’t work as well as the commercial products featuring DEET.
There are some exceptions to this in that some volatile plant oils do repel insects for a while and may be considered as alternatives. Essential oils such as citronella, lemon eucalyptus and some other potent plant oils have potential use as insect repellent but these products carry their own risks. When applied in strong enough concentrations to ward off insects, the oils can be strong skin irritants.
I noticed while researching this article that several popular oils often recommended for use as a bug deterrent are only approved for children older than age 3, whereas DEET has been approved for children as young as 2 months by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also recommends the use of DEET on children older than 2 months. For more information, go to http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/from-insects-animals/Pages/West-Nile-Virus.aspx)
DEET is the commonly used abbreviation for diethyltoluamide. It has been used commercially since the mid 1950s. It was originally formulated for use in the military in the 1940s.
Many consumers question whether DEET is safe to use frequently, especially for children.
Although no chemical is completely risk-free, DEET has been declared safe by the EPA when used as directed. The last part of that statement is important. Actually reading and following the directions for any insect repellent product is important. The risk of ill effects increases when any product is used carelessly.
I have had patients ask me what my thoughts are about using home made products using various essential oils or aromatic plant oils as an alternative to DEET. Their thinking seems to be that since DEET is a commercial chemical it is bad and that natural plant oils would be better.
Although I understand the preference to be “all natural” my main concern would be whether the alternative products are actually effective enough.
Multiple research studies have been conducted to test the effectiveness of various products in actually repelling mosquitoes and ticks.
Generally speaking, it has been repeatedly found that DEET products are the best for long term protection. Although some natural concoctions may be effective short term, they need to be reapplied much more frequently than DEET products.
For some places where there are few mosquitoes and little chance of ticks, I would be happy to use the natural plant oil products short term. For places such as woods or overgrown areas or places that are otherwise highly populated with ticks or mosquitoes, I prefer the reliable effectiveness of a DEET product.