Two-thirds of parents aren’t using bug sprays with DEET, despite safety tests

ANN ARBOR, MI. — With summertime in full gear, people are grabbing the sunscreen and bug spray and heading out for the day. Of course, we all know the big thing to check for on sunblock is the SPF value. But how familiar are you with insect repellant? A new national survey from the University of Michigan Medicine shows it’s not uncommon to have more trouble navigating the bug spray section of the store.

The poll, conducted by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at Michigan Medical, surveys 1,120 parents who have at least one child aged 5-12 years old. Most parents, are using bug spray on their children, but it turns out that two-thirds aren’t buying spray that contains a very important ingredient for repelling mosquitoes: DEET.

DEET is tested and approved for children above two months of age, and it’s quite effective at keeping mosquitoes away. These repellents are typically good for preventing ticks, as well. 

“Many bug bites from mosquitoes and ticks will cause irritation or discomfort for children. But in some less common instances, they may also potentially transmit disease,” says poll co-director Dr. Gary L. Freed, in a press release.

Mosquitoes can sometimes carry diseases like Zika, West Nile and Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE). It’s uncommon for mosquitoes to carry these diseases, but they can cause disability or death in humans or animals. The authors note that there happened to have been a larger number of cases of EEE than usual in 2019.

Ticks a top fear, too

Ticks are also dangerous critters since they carry diseases like lyme disease, a bacterial infection that causes flu-like symptoms and joint pain and weakness. It’s important for parents to choose the bug spray that offers their children the best protection.

The survey asks parents how they respond when their child gets a bite. About 50% use oral antihistamines to provide itch relief, 40% use calamine lotion, and 27% use rubbing alcohol. Most parents say they’d seek medical care if their child becomes unwell. Eight in ten (82%) of parents would take their child to the hospital if they develop a fever. Another 73% say they’d do the same if their developed a rash.

“Because some mosquitoes and ticks may carry certain diseases, parents should contact their child’s health care provider if their child develops fever, headache, or body aches within 3-14 days of a bite,” Freed adds.

The authors add a few notes about tick safety.

“After hiking in the woods or high grassy areas, parents should always check their kids for ticks, especially looking on the back, neck, hairline and around the groin areas,” Freed says. “It’s important to find and remove them quickly to reduce the risk of disease transmission.”

The most common methods to remove ticks are tweezers (72%), rubbing alcohol (23%), scraping it off with a credit card or fingernail (19%) or covering it with vaseline (13%). The authors recommend using tweezers: “Grasping the tick close to where it’s attached and pulling straight up without twisting or crushing the insect.”

Choosing the right bug spray

The survey shows that parents mostly use bug spray when they take their kids to wooded or swampy areas. They don’t use them so much when the kids play in the backyard or local park. About half of the parents polled specifically use children’s bug spray when they use bug spray at all.

Many parents don’t even use store-bought insect repellent. Interestingly, 30% of parents use natural products like oil of lemon eucalyptus. (The authors note that this should only be used for children over three years of age.)

Other parents use clothes to try and prevent bugs from biting their kids. A third have their kids wear long pants and shirts, 21% dress their kids in light colored clothing, and 73% make sure their kids are always wearing shoes so their feet don’t get bit.

“Choosing the appropriate bug repellent can be confusing for parents,” says Freed. “Some may protect against mosquitoes but not ticks, for example. Parents should research the options and recommendations before deciding what to use based on their child’s age and their outdoor plans.”

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