Ask an expert: Is bug spray important?
Whether you’re hanging out in the yard, hiking through the forest or heading to the campground, here's why you should take your insect repellent.
Enjoying the outdoors, no matter where you are, means interacting with nature. Seeing an eagle soar is majestic. Having a gnat circle your head? Not exactly. Luckily, with a bit of bug repellent, you can keep the insect life at a comfortable distance.
If you’re like most people, you’ve had the itchy (or painful) bump following a bug’s bite or sting. Was it from a mosquito who found you irresistible? Or a yellowjacket whose path you unknowingly crossed?
“Bug bites are common,” says Dr. Casey Nowak, a family medicine doctor at Geisinger’s Frackville clinic. “They can range from harmless to more serious, depending on the type of bug.”
Take gnats for example. These puny bugs buzz around your head on warm summer days. They’re irritating, but not dangerous. But ward off those biting or stinging insects to keep from getting sick.
“Ticks can transmit Lyme disease and other illnesses,” says Dr. Nowak. “And mosquitoes can carry West Nile virus.”
Using insect repellent when you’re outdoors keeps those potentially dangerous bites from ever happening.
What to look for
Finding the right bug protection starts with the label. To find the best type for your family, look for these things:
Types of bugs it repels
Some types only guard against mosquitoes. Others protect against ticks, flies and stinging insects like bees and wasps.
“The type of repellent you’ll need depends on the exposure you’ll have,” notes Dr. Nowak.
For example, if you’re planning to be in the deep woods or tall grass, you’ll want something that guards against ticks. If you’re headed to a family cookout, you may only need something that keeps mosquitoes or flies away.
Length of protection
If you plan to be outside for a while, consider longer-lasting repellent. But if your outdoor adventure is short-lived, you may only need a formula that lasts a few hours.
Different ingredients defend against different types of bugs. Look for these things on the label to determine the type of protection.
- DEET: The most common ingredient in bug repellent. This chemical works to confuse a bug’s sense of smell, so you stay undetected. “Products containing DEET offer the best protection in terms of mosquito bite prevention,” says Dr. Nowak.
- Picaridin: Similar to DEET, picaridin forms a barrier on the skin or clothes that deters bugs from crawling or landing on you.
- Lemon oil: Looking for a more natural bug repellent? Consider products that contain lemon oil or eucalyptus.
Using bug spray safely
Finding the right kind is the first step. Applying it correctly is just as important for optimal bug protection.
With bug repellent, less is more. A thin layer on your skin is all you need. You generally don’t need to reapply, but if bugs do start to nibble again, give yourself a quick refresh.
Avoid spraying directly on your face
“When you apply bug spray, keep it away from your eyes and other sensitive areas or cuts,” says Dr. Nowak. “Spray it onto your hands and rub it on your face to avoid eye and nose irritation.”
Spray your clothes
After you’ve sprayed any exposed areas, give your clothes a spritz, too. This gives you an added layer of defense from pesky bugs. And don’t forget to spray your hat if you’re wearing one. It’ll help keep bugs out of your eyes and away from your head.
Protecting yourself from pests
Besides using bug spray, here are a few suggestions to prevent unwanted insect visitors.
Clothing counts. Put on long-sleeved shirts and long pants to cover exposed skin. For an added defense, tuck your pants into your socks.
Another note: think about colors. “Choose light-colored garments when possible — they can help you spot ticks more easily,” says Dr. Nowak. “And the shadows produced by darker colors can attract mosquitoes.”
Stay away from heavily scented products. If you’ll be spending time outdoors, skip the perfume/cologne, as well as scented body spray, lotion or soap. Heavy scents can make you more attractive to pests. Try using unscented versions when possible.
Consider timing. Plan your trip outside of peak bug hours. Avoid excursions at dusk and dawn, when bugs are the most active.
Pay attention to your surroundings. As you walk, stay in the center of trails and out of high grass or thick areas of brush. This can help you avoid ticks and other pests.
Call on plants. Plants like citronella and lemon balm don’t just look nice. This pleasant-smelling vegetation will ward off stinging insects, flies and mosquitoes. To keep pests away from your property, enlist the help of bug-repelling plants. A few to consider:
- Bee balm
And if you’re camping, citronella candles or plants can help your site stay bug-free.
Check for ticks. When you come inside, do a scan for ticks. Check kids and pets — and ask someone to check you. Ticks can be tiny, and may be hard to see. Look for small hard bumps with several legs. After a tick’s been attached for a while, a telltale sign may be a bullseye rash.
If you or a loved one end up with a tick or bug bite, stay calm. Call your provider or send them a message in MyGeisinger. “They can walk you through the steps to remove it yourself,” advises Dr. Nowak. “Or they may direct you to your nearest Geisinger ConvenientCare location to have it removed.”
Summer’s a great time to be outdoors. So, just like sunscreen, a few squirts of bug spray can keep you safe and comfortable when you head outside.
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