Dilemma of being Outdoors: – using DEET or Possibility of West Nile?

Recent concerns about West Nile virus and Lyme disease have again focused on the benefits and risks of using insect repellent. The biggest concern is whether to use DEET or an alternative chemical, or use “natural” insect repellents, like citronella oil or soybean oil.

The Centers for Disease Control has recently started a “Fight the Bite” publicity campaign, which recommends the use of DEET to fight mosquitoes, ticks and other arthropods, when used on the skin or clothing. The CDC has recommended an alternative to DEET known as Picardin.

DEET, while effective at scaring away mosquitoes, can also scare people too. Products with DEET have been used since the 1940’s. With proper use the safety record has been excellent. There have been 43 case reports in medical journals in nearly 60 years of use. In rare instances with overuse, or placement on broken skin, DEET products have been associated with skin reactions, headaches, tremors and seizures.

Consumers may be wary of putting a compound on their skin that can dissolve spandex, rayon, pigmented leather and eyeglass frames. Therefore DEET containing repellents should never be placed under clothing.

Which is worse: Bug Borne Disease or the use of DEET

There have been more cases of Lyme Disease from ticks and West Nile virus from mosquitoes than cases of health problems associated with DEET. The risk for contracting a bug borne illness depends on a variety of factors, including where you live.

In 2010 there were 972 cases of West Nile Virus and 41 deaths. In 2009, there were 29,959 cases of Lyme Disease. This condition is treatable and rarely fatal. Reported clinical findings for Lyme Disease include: rash (68%), arthritis (33%), facial palsy (8%), radiculopathy (4%), mengitis/ enphalitis (1%) and heart block (1%). Your true risk of contracting an insect borne disease depends on a variety of factors, including where you live.

The possibility of contracting West Nile disease is real; most people who contract the disease may not have any symptoms or may have mild flu-like symptoms. The groups at highest risk for getting severely ill are the elderly and people with suppressed immune systems.

How effective are insect repellents that do not contain DEET

Picardin, a recently approved insect repellent in the US, has been used in Australia and Europe for a number of years. It has a number of desirable characteristics including being odorless, having no greasy/sticky feel, being less likely to irritate the skin and not damaging plastics or fabrics.

In Europe, solutions with concentrations up to 20% showed a protective effect for up to 8-10 hours. No serious adverse events have been reported in medical journals in Europe or Australia.

Picardin has a similar efficacy to DEET, but there are hardly any head to head studies available. The manufacturer of Picardin currently does not recommend its use in children under age of 2 years. The EPA states that no toxicologically significant events have been demonstrated in animal studies.

How safe are DEET containing products?

In 2003, the Journal of Toxicology performed an extensive review of the scientific literature to look at the safety of DEET containing products. They found that adverse effects of DEET were rare. This was also true in overexposure to kids that were accidental in nature. DEET products should not be placed on broken skin. Experts warn against using sunscreen containing DEET products because DEET should not be reapplied often.

How effective are other insect repellents that do not contain DEET?

Other repellents that do not contain DEET or Picardin work, but do not last as long. Natural products may be safer for human use, and may offer an ecologic advantage when compared to synthetic non-biodegradable chemicals such as DEET. In a New England Journal of Medicine study from July 2002, researchers placed insect repellent on their arms and placed them into cages containing mosquitoes.

Deep Woods Off (DEET product with 23.8% concentration) kept mosquitoes away the longest for 301.5 minutes. However, non-DEET containing products made an effective showing. Oil of eucalyptus at 30% concentration kept mosquitoes away for 120.1 minutes, while Bite Blocker, with a 2% concentration of soybean oil, kept bites away for 94.6 minutes. Citronella, another DEET alternative, did a poor job, keeping mosquitoes away for less than 20 minutes.

Of constant concern is the safety of insect repellents in the pediatric population. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that only children older than 2 months be exposed to DEET products, and on kids only in concentrations up to 30%.

If you have any concerns about insect repellent, contact the Total Skin Center located near Kansas City today.