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Should your bug repellent habits change this season as Zika continues to spread?

By By Katy Galimberti, Staff Writer
August 01, 2016, 12:36:25 PM EDT

Summer calls for extra precautions when spending time outdoors, including taking proactive measures against mosquitos, ticks and other pests.

With Zika running rampant across South America and four likely locally transmitted cases in Florida, AccuWeather checked in with a medical expert to figure out how to use insect repellents properly this season.

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How do insect repellents work?

Insects like mosquitos and ticks have sensory abilities that detect when a potential host is nearby. A repellent nulls that sense, keeping the bug from coming close enough to bite.

Is DEET really safe?

DEET is an active chemical ingredient found in many insect repellents and is used to prevent harmful insects from infecting the user with illnesses such as West Nile, Zika and Lyme. An estimated one-third of the U.S. population uses some kind of repellent with DEET every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"DEET is safe to the best of our knowledge, although there is some data that at very high doses, it can be toxic," Denise Millstine, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic in Arizona said.

You want to use a reasonable amount without dousing yourself, she said.

Consumer repellents can contain a varying amount of DEET, from 4 percent to 100 percent in various products. Roughly 120 DEET-containing products are registered with the EPA.

The higher the concentration, the longer the product will be effective. Products containing DEET should only be used on the skin and with proper application.

However, no one should be using a product with a concentration higher than about 30 percent DEET, Millstine said, citing the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) suggestion.

"Just like everything else in medicine, more is not necessarily better," she said.

As a powerful chemical, questions on DEET's safety have risen year after year. However, most experts agree that the benefits from using the chemical outweigh the risks.

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What should I use to prevent contracting the Zika virus?In order to prevent being bitten by a Zika-carrying mosquito, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention recommend using an EPA-registered product that contains one of the following active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-menthane-diol.

Still, Dr. Millstine recommends using a DEET product for preventing Zika, as it is the most widely researched chemical.

In addition, wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts is recommended if spending time at an area with Zika.

Is DEET safe for pregnant women?

Yes. Women who are breast-feeding can also use repellents with DEET if applied following the guidelines listed on the product.

However, pregnant women are encouraged to not travel to areas with Zika.


Is DEET safe for kids?

Yes, outside of infants. Apply with caution and as the packaging recommends. For kids aged 2-12, the EWG suggests using a product with no more than 10 percent DEET.

Is spray the best form of repellent?

Using a spray is the most effective way of covering a large area of skin, Dr. Millstine said. Unlike a sunscreen, the spray does not have to be applied to every inch of skin to be effective.

However, when applying to the face, spray into your hands first and then rub gently into the skin. DEET is not a digestible chemical, so application should be done in a careful manner.

Repellents should typically be applied every couple hours, but follow the guidelines on the specific product.

Are citronella candles and bracelets effective?

Yes, to an extent. Bracelets often diffuse a bug repellent, but only offer a foot or two of protection, according to the Wall Street Journal. They are best used when wearing clothing that covers arms and legs, leaving the band to repel mosquitos and ticks from ankles and wrists.

Candles containing citronella release a smoke that is supposed to deter mosquitos. While they work to some degree, most experts say that they do not offer a widespread area of coverage and are not entirely effective. Wind and a breeze can shift the area as well, offering a window for the mosquitos.

Should I be using a DEET repellent every day this summer?

No, Dr. Millstine said. Unless in an area with Zika, she advised against using a chemical repellent on a daily basis. If spending extended time outdoors, then one should be applied in order to prevent bites from ticks and mosquitos.

"The question when you're considering the use of insect repellent comes down to what you're trying to protect yourself from," she said. "So if you travel to an area where there is Zika or there is malaria, you need to use the strongest product."

However, she suggests avoiding chemical exposure unless absolutely necessary.

If Zika were to spread into the U.S., she suggests following CDC guidelines.

What are some alternative methods to prevent mosquito and tick bites?

If living in a state where insect-borne diseases aren't prevalent, she said it's worth trying natural products.

Dr. Millstine suggested using botanical repellents, as well as lemon eucolyptus oil, to ward off ticks and mosquitos.

"Now if you start to get mosquito bites after you've sprayed them, I would convert to one of the stronger products," she said. "That's how I would treat my own family."

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