Human diseases such as dengue, Zika, Lyme disease, malaria, or plague are transmitted by biting insects infected with pathogens, called vectors. Vectors are infected mosquitos, ticks, and fleas that spread germs between humans, or from animals to humans who gets sick after being bitten by the vector. If you are going into an outdoor area that may put you at risk, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises to apply the right insect repellent to protect yourself from vector borne diseases.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), vector borne diseases caused by either parasites, bacteria, or viruses, account for more than 17% of all infectious diseases. In the United States, during 2004-2016 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said a total of 642,602 vector borne cases across 16 diseases were reported. This figure is believed to be substantially underreported.
Lyme disease is the most common vector borne disease in the Northern Hemisphere. The CDC said that reported cases of tickborne disease have more than doubled during 2004-2016. Lyme disease accounts for 82% of cumulative reported cases. Tickborne diseases occur throughout the continental United States and have the highest number of cases in the eastern part of the country and along the Pacific Coast.
The best way to protect yourself and your family from vector borne diseases is to use insect repellent. The CDC advises to use insect repellents with one of the active ingredients listed below and registered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that requires companies to submit proof of repellency including safety and toxicity data.
- Picaridin (known as KBR 3023 and icaridin outside the US)
- Oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE)
- Para-menthane-diol (PMD)
These repellents offer high levels of protection against biting insects and ticks. These active ingredients and are shown to be safe, even for pregnant and nursing women.
Inflammation Guide turned to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website to get their stance regarding these active ingredients. The EWG is dedicated to helping people live a healthy life by scoring food and water, household and personal care products for toxicity ratings. We were surprised to learn that EWG ranks DEET, Picaridin, and IR3535 as their top three picks. Concerns particularly about DEET were dispelled when they cited a 2017 report that found DEET was unlikely to cause neurotoxicity. EWG said good follow up choices in insect repellents are Oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) and 2-undecanone that may provide similar protection but possibly for a shorter duration.
Surprisingly, EWG does not recommend products based on botanical extracts in protecting against vector borne diseases. Many of these products contain allergens in highly concentrating forms, and vary in effectiveness.
In choosing an insect repellant, consider what vector (mosquitoes, ticks, or both) you want protection against, the active ingredient, and the amount of protection time you need for the activity you are exposed to them.
The CDC gives advice on how to effectively apply insect repellent. It is best to get dressed first, wearing clothes that cover arms and legs, and do not spray repellent on the skin under clothing. Apply sunscreen first and then the insect repellent second.
For babies and kids under 3 years old, do not use Oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) and Para-menthane-diol (PMD). Spray into your hands first and then apply the insect repellent to the child’s face, avoiding hands, eyes, mouth, and cuts. Use mosquito nets on strollers.
If you are going outdoors in an at risk area for vector borne diseases, it is advised to use products treated with permethrin. Buy products treated with 1.5% permethrin or treat clothing and gear yourself by spraying boots, pants, socks and tents outdoors or in a well ventilated space. When you come in from being outdoors, it is a good idea to shower within two hours to wash off unattached ticks. Also, the CDC provides information about how to remove a tick.