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Ask Dr. Matt: Is It Safe for My Kids to Use Insect Repellent? 

Q: Is it safe for my kids to use insect repellent?

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A: Be grateful that in the Inland Northwest, bugs primarily just bug people. Yes, West Nile Virus hits the radar every summer, but fortunately, serious complications are rare. We have ticks as well, but they’re quite human-friendly, with complications such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever essentially non-existent in our region. There is still good reason, however, to avoid bites — they itch, which leads to scratching, which can lead to skin infection. So what to do?

For mosquitoes, there is the old standby DEET. Although quite effective, this noxious-smelling repellent leaves many parents looking for an alternative, as there have been a handful of reports of unpleasant side effects when used on children. In any event, it stinks — if you’re going to use this on children, go for the 10 percent formulations. And you’ll have to reapply every few hours.

A less stinky, but no less effective alternative to DEET is Picaridin. This repellent was developed in Europe and has been used for many years around the world. You can find this active ingredient in Cutter Advanced products.

For those looking for a more organic product, there are some “natural” options. (Reminder: “natural” is not always better — after all, poison ivy, nettles, mosquitoes, hemorrhoids and hurricanes are all natural.) Several natural compounds are reported to be quite useful in repelling insects. Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus is thought to be effective, although there has not been as much research establishing its safety and efficacy as with DEET and Picaridin. Also, there are parents in my practice who have claimed good luck with Bug Bands. These fashionable wristbands are impregnated with Geraniol, a derivative of geraniums.     

Citronella, a derivative of lemongrass, is also a natural option, but you have to kick up a lot of smoke by burning torches or candles to see much benefit, and in my experience, children and torches do not mix well.

If you are looking to not merely repel, but to kill, you can go for an insecticide like Permethrin. This will make ticks and mosquitoes drop like flies when they touch clothing covered with this potent bug-killing essence. You do not want to apply this to the skin, however; instead, wash clothes with a solution of the compound, or soak a hat or shirt in the stuff. And just so you know, you’re not supposed to put it on cats.

Finally, if you find a tick, you can remove it yourself, but you should do it right. According to the Centers for Disease Control, you should use tweezers to grasp the tick close to the skin and pull it straight up, slowly, away from the skin. Clean up with soap and warm water. And despite what many people insist, don’t worry if the mouthparts stay in the skin. And don’t use hot matches or needles or anything else to remove a tick.

Good luck bugging off!

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