How to Prevent and Treat Insect Bites Without Harsh Chemicals

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 insect bites, should preventive methods fail. Some of the most common biting insects include: 

  • Mosquitoes
  • Fleas
  • Gnats
  • Spiders
  • Certain flies
  • Bedbugs
  • Midges
  • Ticks

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 insect bites 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 factsheet 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.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
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Muscle weakness and fatigue
  • Tremors

Another potentially harmful chemical found in many bug sprays 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.

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 ingredients.

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 vanilla oil 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).

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 anti fungal 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. 

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 in Scientific American 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 Bulletin 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. 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. Make sure the spoon is not too hot.

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.

blog comments powered by Disqus