Venture outside enough this summer and you’re bound to come in contact with some of the season's more prevalent pests – mosquitoes and ticks. At best, these insects are a minor nuisance; at worst, they're vectors for diseases such as Lyme, West Nile, and Zika.

Topical insect repellents are the single-best way to prevent bug bites while outdoors. But pesticides and insect repellents aren't your only recourse. There are a number of other strategies you can employ at home and in your yard to limit your exposure to insects.

Attract fewer insects to your outdoor spaces

To stave off insect bites, it helps to have fewer bugs around in the first place. Take steps to minimize insect breeding grounds and attract fewer bugs to your outdoor living spaces.

  • Remove standing water. Mosquitoes breed in standing water. Empty and turn over toys, equipment, or containers that collect rainwater. Keep the gutters on your house clean and free of debris that can trap water. Regularly empty rain barrels or keep them tightly covered so mosquitoes can't access them. Change the water in bird baths and fountains frequently. Get rid of old tires in your yard, and drain your fire pit if water collects there.1-3
  • Mow tall grass and remove brush piles. Ticks are most often found in tall grasses and shrubs. To reduce tick populations in your yard, keep your grass mowed short and clean up leaf and brush piles.4
  • Replace outdoor lightbulbs with yellow "bug" bulbs. A variety of insects, including mosquitoes, are attracted to a house's outdoor lights. Consider using yellow lightbulbs – often marketed as "bug lights" – in your outdoor fixtures. The warm yellow light from these bulbs seems to attract fewer flying insects than regular incandescent or cool-light LED bulbs.3
  • Use a fan to circulate outdoor air. Mosquitoes are primarily attracted to the carbon dioxide we exhale. Studies suggest that using an electric fan to circulate the air around you "dilutes" the carbon dioxide, which makes it harder for mosquitoes to find you. And because mosquitoes aren't particularly strong, circulating air can make it harder for them to land on you. For best results, point a standing electric fan – ceiling fans don't work as well – at your seating area, and set it at a moderate or high speed.5

Landscape for pest prevention

Because insects are a vital part of the ecosystem, you can use natural predator-prey cycles to your advantage. Choose plants and landscaping features that repel pests and encourage natural insect predators.

  • Plant a wide variety of native plants. Insects that prey on other bugs – think ladybugs, dragonflies, spiders, green lacewings, and praying mantises – help control unwanted bugs in your yard and garden. To create habitats for these beneficial predatory insects, plant a variety of native plants, trees, and shrubs around your home. For example, coneflowers, asters, goldenrod, milkweed, and sunflowers are native to much of the continental United States. Choose the varieties that are best for your region and gardening zone.6
  • Integrate bird and bat houses. Larger predators, like bats and birds, also help control insect populations. Most bat species in the United States primarily eat insects. Birds that commonly eat bugs include purple martins, swallows, eastern kingbirds, and yellow warblers. Like the predatory insects, these creatures are attracted to a yard that offers a wide variety of native plants. To further entice birds and bats, consider adding nest boxes and bat houses to your landscape. You'll likely need to do some research to determine which bird and bat species are common to your area and what types and locations of housing they prefer.7,8

Of course, bats can develop rabies, although most bats don’t have it. To be safe, never handle a bat. If you think you’ve been bitten by a bat, then wash the area with soap and water and seek medical advice immediately.9

  • Build water features to attract wildlife. Well-maintained water features like ponds and container water gardens can help attract local wildlife and beneficial insects, including birds, dragonflies, frogs, and salamanders, all of which eat other insects. Many of the decisions you make about your water features will be region-specific. Do some research about the best pond designs and depths for your climate, local wildlife, preferred location, and native aquatic plants.

Remember that many water features, when not properly maintained, can be a breeding ground for mosquitoes. To deter that, be sure the water is moving or aerated, because mosquitoes prefer stagnant water. You can also add mosquito dunks to your water. These contain an organic, natural bacterium that only kills mosquito and black fly larvae; so they’re safe for wildlife.

Although certain species of fish, like goldfish and mosquito fish (Gambusia affinins), eat mosquito larvae, they also eat the eggs and larvae of beneficial species like dragonflies and frogs. Because of this, adding fish to your pond isn't recommended if your goal is to foster local wildlife.10,11

  • Choose insect-repelling plants for your garden. Research is mixed on whether plants with insect-repelling properties help control mosquito populations. But they might offer some protection, so as you design your garden spaces, consider adding plants such as citronella, lantana, geranium, basil, mint, and thyme to your beds.12

Prevent bites inside your home

Insects know no boundaries, so take steps to prevent bugs from entering your home.

  • Be sure windows and doors are in good repair. Cover gaps and cracks around windows and doors. If you keep your windows open, then repair or replace window and door screens so mosquitoes and other insects can't enter through holes in the screens.2
  • Protect your pets. Ticks are often carried indoors on pets. Once inside your home, a tick can attach to the people and animals that live with you. To protect your human and animal family members from tickborne diseases, regularly check your pets for ticks. Your veterinarian can tell you which tick prevention products are suitable for your animals.4
  • Keep lights off near screened windows and open doors. Bugs are attracted to the light and some are small enough to get through mesh screens and collect on and around your favorite lamp.

 Dress for prevention

Knowledge is power. Do some research to learn which types of mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects are common to your area. Know how to identify them, and learn about their habits and habitats. Then use what you know to your advantage. Try to stay indoors when insects are most active, and avoid areas where they are most common.3,13 If you can't or don't want to avoid being outdoors, then choose clothing and skin products carefully.

  • Wear appropriate clothing. To help prevent mosquito and tick bites, cover as much exposed skin as possible. Wear a shirt with long sleeves, pants, socks, and closed-toe shoes that cover most of your body. In tick-infested areas, tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks so ticks can't crawl under your clothes. Choose light-colored clothing so you can more easily see insects that land or are crawling on you.3,13
  • Use fragrance-free skin and laundry products. Perfumes and artificial scents can attract insects. To prevent bites and stings – especially from bees and wasps – opt for fragrance-free laundry products.3
  • Treat clothing and outdoor gear. Permethrin is an insect repellent and insecticide that is applied to clothing and outdoor gear – not skin. The active ingredient is derived from dried chrysanthemum flowers. Some sporting goods stores sell clothing pretreated with permethrin, which works effectively against mosquitoes, ticks, flies and chiggers.14

Insect repellents: A breakdown of the options

Regardless of your environment, insect repellents still offer the best protection against insect bites and the diseases they spread. Several types are available, including at least one plant-based compound. The most effective active ingredients for insect repellents include:

  • Diethyltoluamide (DEET) is a conventional, synthetic repellent that is heavily researched and widely available. At concentrations of 20-50 percent, DEET is effective against mosquitoes, ticks, and other biting insects for approximately 8-12 hours. Applied properly, DEET has a good safety record and has been tested stringently. DEET does have a strong odor and can cause skin irritation, and is not recommended for infants under two months old.1,15
  • Icaridin (formerly called picaridin) is a conventional, synthetic repellent developed in Europe that has been available in the United States for 10 years. At concentrations of 10-20 percent, icaridin offers the same protection against mosquitoes, ticks, and other biting insects as DEET. Unlike DEET, however, icaridin does not have a strong odor and is less likely to cause skin irritation.1,15
  • Oil of lemon eucalyptus or PMD (the synthetic version of oil of lemon eucalyptus) is derived from the leaves of the lemon eucalyptus plant. At a concentration of 30 percent, oil of lemon eucalyptus is as effective as DEET and icaridin at repelling mosquitoes and ticks. But protection from one application doesn’t last as long – approximately 4-5 hours, versus the 8-12 hours from DEET and icaridin. Lower concentrations of oil of lemon eucalyptus offer even shorter-lasting protection. This compound should not be used for children under age three. The essential oil version of lemon eucalyptus, like other essential oils, is not an approved repellent.1,3,12,15
  • IR3535 is a synthetic repellent derived from an amino acid. It offers about 2-3 hours of protection against ticks and certain types of mosquitoes, but is less effective than DEET and icaridin against the mosquito that transmits malaria. Like DEET, IR3535 can cause skin irritation, can damage plastics, and might be toxic if inhaled or ingested.1,15
  • 2-Undecanone (BioUD) is a natural compound from leaves and stems of the wild tomato plant.2 Some research suggests that 2-undecanone repels mosquitos similarly to a 30-percent concentration of DEET.14

Herbal and botanical formulations that include citronella oil or other essential oils might have insect-repelling properties but don’t offer lasting protection.1,3,8,9,15

Bites happen

Despite your best efforts, bug bites are likely to happen. Be sure to check your skin for ticks after outdoor activities. And if you experience symptoms like rash, fever, or body aches after a mosquito or tick bite, then see your doctor as soon as possible.16


References

  1. AskMayoExpert. Insect repellent. Rochester, Minn.: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; 2019.
  2. Tips to prevent mosquito bites. Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/insect-repellents/tips-prevent-mosquito-bites. [Accessed July 3, 2019]
  3. Insect bite prevention. International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (IAMAT). https://www.iamat.org/insect-bite-prevention#. [Accessed July 3, 2019]
  4. Avoiding ticks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/avoid/index.html. [Accessed July 3, 2019]
  5. Hoffman E, Miller J. Reassessment of the role and utility of wind in suppression of mosquito (Diptera: Culicidae) host finding: Stimulus dilution supported over flight limitation. J Med Entomol 2003;40(5):607-614.
  6. Enticing predators to patrol your garden. National Wildlife Federation. https://www.nwf.org/Magazines/National-Wildlife/2010/Enticing-Predators-to-Patrol-Your-Garden. [Accessed July 8, 2019]
  7. Bats and birds will eat your mosquitos. Wildlife Habitat Council. https://www.wildlifehc.org/bats-and-birds-will-eat-your-mosquitos/. [Accessed July 24, 2019]
  8. Bat houses. Bat Conservation International. http://www.batcon.org/resources/getting-involved/bat-houses. [Accessed July 24, 2019]
  9. Bats and rabies. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/rabies/bats/index.html. [Accessed Aug. 2, 2019]
  10. Wild about gardens: Big or small, ponds for all. The Wildlife Trusts. https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/actions/how-build-pond. [Accessed July 24, 2019]
  11. Water for wildlife. Pacific Horticulture Society. https://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/water-for-wildlife/. [Accessed July 24, 2019]
  12. Maia M, Moore S. Plant-based insect repellents: A review of their efficacy, development and testing. Malar J 2011;10(Suppl1):S11.
  13. Protection against mosquitoes, ticks, and other arthropods. In: CDC Yellow Book 2018: Health Information for International Travelers. https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2018/the-pre-travel-consultation/protection-against-mosquitoes-ticks-other-arthropods. [Accessed July 9, 2019]
  14. Breisch N. Prevention of arthropod and insect bites: repellents and other measures. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. [Accessed July 30, 2019]
  15. Diaz J. Chemical and plant-based insect repellents: Efficacy, safety, and toxicity. Wilderness Environ Med 2016;27(1):153-63.
  16. Tips to prevent and treat bug bites. American Academy of Dermatology. https://www.aad.org/public/skin-hair-nails/injured-skin/bug-bites-and-stings. [Accessed July 9, 2019]