We love pretty much everything about summer, with one exception: bugs. Besides the annoyance of a mosquito buzzing around your room at night, or the discomfort of an itchy bite, bugs are also associated with some very serious health risks. Ticks can spread Lyme disease, which we know from our interviews (and personal experience) is no joke, as well as other diseases like Babesiosis. They also carry a new disease called Heartland virus, which can cause head and muscle aches, fatigue, fever, and diarrhea, and for which there is no vaccine or medication. Yikes. Meanwhile, mosquitoes can carry the threat of Zika, West Nile, chikungunya virus, dengue fever, and malaria.
What’s more, instances of these bug-borne illnesses are increasing. According to the CDC, diseases and infections from ticks, mosquitoes, and fleas have tripled in the past 13 years! In that time, nine new germs spread by mosquitoes and ticks were either discovered or introduced into the U.S., seven of them from ticks. Ticks seem to be the fastest-growing threat, accounting for over 60% of the reported 642,602 cases of insect-borne illnesses during those 13 years. The most recent estimate puts the number of Americans who contract Lyme disease each year at around 300,000 — scarier still, only 35,000 of those are reported.
The issue of how to protect yourself, unfortunately, isn’t completely uncomplicated. Bug repellents are full of strong chemicals, and according to the Environmental Working Group, there is “no sure, completely safe way to prevent bug bites. All bug repellents have pros and cons.” Keep in mind that using a bug repellent adds to your toxic load.
DEET, which gets a bad rap, is actually one of the EWG’s top ingredients for effective protection against Zika- and West Nile-carrying mosquitoes. The three ingredients they recommend looking for in bug repellents, which are effective against both mosquitoes and ticks, are:
DEET (20-30% concentration)
Picaridin (20% concentration)
IR 3535 (20% concentration)
But remember, these are still strong chemicals, so use some precaution. Avoid spraying any of them close to your face or directly on your skin; instead, spray your clothing. By preventing the chemicals from entering your skin and bloodstream, you can reduce your toxic load and possible harm to your body. If you want a botanically-based repellent, look for one made with oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is the most effective natural repellent on the market and the only one on the CDC’s list of recommended insect repellents (just remember that oil of lemon eucalyptus doesn’t last as long as DEET or Picaridin, so you’ll need to reapply every few hours).
Even better, avoid putting chemical bug repellent on your skin by treating your clothes and shoes with permethrin or purchasing permethrin-treated clothing. Permethrin is the only pesticide approved by the EPA for the purposes of treating such items, and because it binds tightly to fabrics, very little of the chemical transfers to the skin. You can also avoid chemicals altogether by using such tactics as wearing long sleeves and long pants, burning citronella candles, controlling ticks and fleas on pets, and doing regular tick checks.