Mosquitoes and ticks can spoil a beautiful day and make people sick. Beyond buzzing, biting, sucking and stinging, they can carry serious diseases. Tiny blacklegged ticks carry Lyme disease. Nighttime biting Culex mosquitoes can transmit West Nile virus and Japanese encephalitis. And the aggressive Aedes mosquitoes — happy to bite any time — can cause Zika, dengue fever and chikungunya. And that’s just a sampling of the troubles they bring.
Little wonder we look for ways to protect ourselves from mosquitoes and ticks, especially this time of the year, when we spend more time outside. With a little thought and care, though, we can do so in ways that are healthier for us — and for the world around us — than using toxic chemicals.
Insecticides kill all insects, not just ticks and mosquitoes. They also kill important pollinators such as bees, butterflies and moths. Insecticides harm the animals that eat these insects such as bats and birds. And they wash into waterways, where they can kill aquatic invertebrates that provide critical food for fish, frogs and other stream dwellers.
In other words, using toxic pesticides can end up harming or killing the very things that make our flowers bloom and gardens grow. They can also pose a risk to children and pets by leaving a toxic chemical residue on everything, including lawn furniture, outdoor toys and play sets.
I’ve made it a personal challenge to prevent mosquito and tick bites without using chemicals that could harm me, my pets, beneficial insects such as butterflies and bees or the birds that eat them.
To prevent tick bites, avoid walking through tall grasses and leaf litter. If you’re going off the paved pathways, wear closed shoes and long pants tucked into long socks so feet and ankles are not exposed. Wearing light-colored clothing helps to spot a tick that may be hitching a ride.
Always check your clothes and skin for ticks when you return from the outdoors; make sure to check hiding places such as in and around ears and hair, under arms, behind knees and in belly buttons. If you shower within a few hours of returning, you have a good chance of washing away unattached ticks, and at the same time, you can check your skin for ticks. Don’t forget to check your pets for ticks, too.
If you find an attached tick, remove it using fine-tipped tweezers, grasping the tick as close to your skin’s surface as possible so as to pull out the whole insect including its head. Wash the bitten area with soapy water afterward.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention generally does not recommend saving the tick for testing, but you should have yourself tested if you had an attached tick, or if you feel symptoms of tick-borne diseases: fever or chills; aches and pains; any rash.
To avoid mosquito bites, cover up as much as possible by wearing socks, long pants and long-sleeved shirts (you can avoid harmful sun exposure at the same time — a bonus). Try to avoid going out at dusk when many mosquito species tend to bite. Make sure window and door screens are intact to prevent mosquitoes and other insects from getting in. Make sure all standing water sources are dumped out regularly to reduce larval populations — this includes upturned children’s toys, trash cans and lids, birdbaths, plant trays and other havens for mosquito breeding.
If you use insect repellent — as I do when I’m out in the woods, along a creek, or other buggy places — the CDC recommends those registered with the Environmental Protection Agency. Make sure you follow the label directions. In particular, follow label warnings if the product is not meant to be used on infants or young children.
Do not use any insect repellent on babies younger than 2 months old — for those little ones, use avoidance strategies such as keeping them covered up, and on a blanket instead of directly on grassy or leafy ground where mosquitoes and ticks abound.
Try to put as little repellent as possible directly on skin. Instead, spray clothing. I usually only use repellent on my hair and neck. If I’m not wearing full-cover shoes and socks then I spray my feet and ankles. Once I spray my clothing, that keeps the pests at bay.
Don’t apply repellents to skin that will be covered by clothing or on cuts or open wounds.
Don’t spray faces — instead, spray the repellent into hands and then apply it to sensitive areas such as the face to avoid getting it into eyes and mouth. Apply it this way to young children, instead of letting them do it themselves.
Plant-based repellents such as oil of lemon eucalyptus work well, smell nice and are less toxic. The CDC and Consumer Reports have recommendations for products and good information on how to use them safely and effectively. If you think you need more protection and want a DEET product, make sure it contains no more than 25 percent DEET.
What if neighbors, communities and local authorities spray insecticides outdoors? Try to talk them off that ledge using all the great resources from the CDC and others. But, failing that, try to get them to use the least toxic pesticides that will be effective, at the lowest application rate that will be effective.
Insist that they only use insecticides in a way that minimizes contact with people — for example, avoiding daytime spraying when people are outside, and using targeted, rather than broadcast, spraying whenever possible. And, insist that they provide advance notice of planned spraying, so neighbors have a chance to close windows, bring toys inside and cover outdoor furniture.
At this point, we’ve failed to save the outdoor critters and are just trying to prevent collateral damage to people and pets.
●Find out what to watch for in your state with the interactive map and “Guide to Mosquito and Tick Diseases” from Consumer Reports.
●Visit the CDC website for updated, region-specific information on the many varieties of mosquitoes and ticks and the diseases they carry, along with current prevention and treatment recommendations.
●The EPA hosts an insect repellent site.
●If you think you or someone you know has been poisoned with pesticides, contact your medical provider. Health professionals with a regional Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit will know how to recognize and treat pesticide poisoning.
●Report pesticide poisoning events — including to people, pets and wildlife — to a Poison Control Center, and to the 800 number on the product package if you have it. Poison incident data is aggregated and used to inform the EPA’s pesticide approval process. It can be publicly accessed through a Freedom of Information Act request to the EPA.
●If you think you need to spray your outdoor areas, use the Beyond Pesticides website to find a service provider that will provide nontoxic pest control.
Jennifer Sass is an environment health scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.