by Lisa Benest, MD


Insects don’t only cause those itchy, unrelenting bites, but they are also responsible for transmitting disease, such as malaria, Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and West Nile virus.  Even the bubonic plague is transmitted by rat fleas, and not the rats themselves.  Many nations, over the centuries, have sought a solution for repelling insects.  The Indian Army used oils of citronella, camphor and paraffin as repellents.  These agents had limited efficacy and so better solutions were sought.  In 1953 N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide, or DEET, was discovered.  As reports of insect borne disease increase, so does the use of DEET, and with it comes an increase in reports of adverse effects.

DEET does not kill insects, but confuses their sense of smell, so that they cannot detect the carbon dioxide emitted from our breath when we exhale.  Insects use the scent of carbon dioxide to find their next meal.  DEET does not need to be applied to the skin.  To fend off those buzzy predators, it is best to wear long sleeves and pants, whenever possible, and apply the DEET to the clothing, to minimize exposure to this neurotoxic chemical.  DEET is particularly harmful to infants and children, where it has been known to cause headaches, slurred speech, tremors and seizures.  DEET inhibits the activity of a key central nervous system enzyme, acetylcholinesterase, in both insects and mammals (humans).  The possibility of these side effects is greatly increased with routine and prolonged application of DEET.  The most common exposure to DEET is via the skin, but it is also absorbed through the gut.

There are a number of effective, less toxic insect repellents on the market.  They primarily use essential oils and are less effective than DEET, and so have to be applied more often.  You can also make your own repellent, a recipe is provided below.

To make your outdoors less hospitable to mosquitoes, you can use a yellow light bulb, which does not attract flying critters.  Also, use a fan to blow the air, as mosquitoes are not strong flyers.  Add insect repelling plants such as lemon balm, citronella, catnip, marigolds, basil and lemon geraniums to your yard.  You can encourage mosquito predators, such as dragonflies, which can be purchased through the mail.

And if you do get bit, try the homeopathic pellets Apis Mellifica under the tongue to reduce the symptoms of welting and itching.

Homemade Insect Repellent Recipe:

Mix 10-25 drops of essential oils, such as citronella, lemon eucalyptus, cinnamon, rose geranium, lavender, peppermint, with either 2 tablespoons of carrier oil (such as olive oil) or alcohol (vodka is best).  Rub or spray onto skin or clothing.  Some people are sensitive to certain essential oils, so you will have to experiment with what works best.  Keep in a dark glass jar, away from light and heat.

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