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How to Use Insect Repellents Safely

Mosquitoes, biting flies, and ticks can be annoying and sometimes pose a serious risk to public health. In certain areas of the United States, mosquitoes can transmit diseases like equine and St. Louis encephalitis. Biting flies can inflict a painful bite that can persist for days, swell, and become infected. Ticks can transmit serious diseases like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. When properly used, insect repellents can discourage biting insects from landing on treated skin or clothing.

Choosing Insect Repellents
Insect repellents are available in various forms and concentrations. Aerosol and pump-spray products are intended for skin applications as well as for treating clothing. Liquid, cream, lotion, spray, and stick products enable direct skin application. Products with a low concentration of active ingredient may be appropriate for situations where exposure to insects is minimal. Higher concentration of active ingredient may be useful in highly infested areas or with insect species which are more difficult to repel. And where appropriate, consider nonchemical ways to deter biting insects - screens, netting, long sleeves, and slacks.

Using Insect Repellents Safely
EPA recommends the following precautions when using insect repellents:

  • Apply repellents only to exposed skin and/or clothing (as directed on the product label). Do not use under clothing.
  • Never use repellents over cuts, wounds, or irritated skin.
  • Do not apply to eyes and mouth, and apply sparingly around ears. When using sprays do not spray directly onto face; spray on hands first and then apply to face.
  • Do not allow children to handle the products, and do not apply to children's hands. When using on children, apply to your own hands and then put it on the child.
  • Do not spray in enclosed areas. Avoid breathing a repellent spray, and do not use it near food.
  • Use just enough repellent to cover exposed skin and/or clothing. Heavy application and saturation is generally unnecessary for effectiveness; if biting insects do not respond to a thin film of repellent, then apply a bit more.
  • After returning indoors, wash treated skin with soap and water or bathe. This is particularly important when repellents are used repeatedly in a day or on consecutive days. Also, wash treated clothing before wearing it again. If you suspect that you or your child are reacting to an insect repellent, discontinue use, wash treated skin, and then call your local poison control center. If/when you go to a doctor, take the repellent with you. 

Get specific medical information about the active ingredients in repellents and other pesticides by calling the National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) at 1-800-858-7378. NPIC operates from 6:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (Pacific Time),9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (Eastern Time), 7 days a week. The NPIC Web site is: http://npic.orst.edu/ 

Important Information on Using Pesticides
EPA recommends the following precautions when using an insect repellent or pesticide:

  • Check the container to ensure that the product bears an EPA-approved label and registration number. Never use a product that has not been approved for use by EPA!
  • Read the entire label before using a pesticide. Even if you have used it before, read the label again - don't trust your memory.
  • Follow use directions carefully, use only the amount directed, at the time and under the conditions specified, and for the purpose listed. For example, if you need a tick repellent, make sure that the product label lists this use. If ticks are not listed, the product may not be formulated for that use.
  • Store pesticides away from children's reach, in a locked utility cabinet or garden shed. 

Avoiding Ticks and Lyme Disease
Lyme disease has become the leading tick-borne illness in the United States. In 1999, 16,273 cases of Lyme disease were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The deer tick, also known as the black-legged tick, is the species that most often transmits Lyme disease. With proper precautions, Lyme disease is preventable.

Ticks are most active from April through October, so exercise additional caution when venturing into tick country during that time period. 
When in a tick-infested area, an insect repellent is good prevention is, however, consider using a product designed to be applied to clothing rather than skin. 
Tuck pants cuffs into boots or socks, and wear long sleeves and light-colored clothing to make it easier to spot ticks. 

Stay to the center of hiking paths, and avoid grassy and marshy woodland areas. 
Inspect yourself and your children for clinging ticks after leaving an infested area. Ticks are hard to see - nymphs are dot sized; adults, smaller than a sesame seed.

If you discover a tick feeding, do not panic. Studies indicate that an infected tick does not usually transmit the Lyme organism during the first 24 hours. 
If you suspect Lyme disease or its symptoms, contact your doctor immediately. 

IN CASE OF AN EMERGENCY, first determine what the person was exposed to and what part of the body was affected before you take action, since taking the right action is as important as taking immediate action. If the person is unconscious, having trouble breathing, or having convulsions, give the indicated first aid immediately. Call 911 or your local emergency service. If these symptoms are not evident, contact your local Poison Control Center, physician, 911, or your local emergency service and follow its directions. The following are general first aid guidelines:

Poison in eye. Eye membranes absorb pesticides faster than any other external part of the body. Eye damage can occur in a few minutes with some types of pesticides. If poison splashes into an eye, hold the eyelid open and wash quickly and gently with clean running water from the tap or a gentle stream from a hose for at least 15 minutes. If possible, have someone contact a Poison Control Center while the victim is being treated. Do not use eye drops, chemicals, or drugs in the wash water. 

Poison on skin. If pesticide splashes on the skin, drench area with water and remove contaminated clothing. Wash skin and hair thoroughly with soap and water. Later, discard contaminated clothing or thoroughly wash it separately from other laundry. 
Inhaled poison. Get the victim to fresh air immediately. Open doors and windows to prevent fumes from poisoning others. Call the fire department. 

Swallowed poison. Induce vomiting ONLY if the emergency personnel on the phone tell you to do so. It will depend on what the victim has swallowed; some petroleum products, or caustic poisons, can cause serious damage if vomited. Always keep Syrup of Ipecac on hand (one bottle per household). Be sure the date is current and keep it out of children's reach.