Mosquito bites are more than just an itchy nuisance -- these days, they can also be downright dangerous. That’s true even if you never leave home, because you don’t need to travel abroad to catch a mosquito-borne illness; mosquitoes in our area can transmit many different viruses. The time to start practicing insect-bite prevention is now, says Sunil Sood, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Southside Hospital and Cohen Children’s Medical Center. In New York, mosquitoes can be active as early as April.
The risk best known to most people is that of West Nile Virus. Generally, people who get West Nile have mild or no symptoms, but a small percentage of people can develop serious neurologic illness. Another dangerous virus, called eastern equine encephalitis, can also be carried by mosquitoes in our area. “It’s uncommon, but every few years we see a few cases, including in children,” says Sood. And of course there’s also the elephant in the room – the Zika virus, which has recently been linked with birth defects. The mosquitoes that can carry Zika and other tropical viruses are already present in the U.S.; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not ruled out the possibility of domestic spread of Zika this summer.
“For most of these viruses, there is no vaccine and no specific treatment,” says Sood. “But by following a few easy preventive measures, you can avoid many different infections.” Here are his top tips for keeping mosquitoes away, whether you’re traveling or spending time in your own backyard.
Use the right bug spray
The best way to avoid mosquito bites is to use an FDA-approved insect repellant that contains one of the following ingredients: DEET (30-50%), picaridin, IR3535 or oil of lemon eucalyptus (also known as para-menthane-diol or PMD). “These products are proven safe and they are very effective at preventing bites,” says Sood, adding they can be used on babies as young as two months. You can also treat your clothing, camping gear, or sports equipment with permethrin, or buy apparel pre-treated with it. Just don’t wait until you feel yourself being bitten to take action. “Carry repellant with you and use it diligently,” he says -- day, evening and night.
Get rid of standing water
“Mosquitoes can breed in any body of water, even in something as small as a bottle cap,” says Sood, so dump and remove any items that collect water. Got a bird bath? “If the birds are visiting regularly and splashing around, that’s fine. But if it’s just sitting there untouched, it could be a risk.”
Keep doors and window screens closed
You’re probably not wearing bug spray indoors, so keep your home a mosquito-free zone by making sure window screens are intact and doors stay closed when they’re not in use.
Don’t rely on candles, coils, or lawn treatments
Items you can buy for your yard -- like citronella candles or coils -- are mildly effective at keeping bugs away, “but they should be secondary precautions,” says Sood. “You can use them while you’re sitting outside, but only after you’ve sprayed yourself.” He also doesn’t recommend spraying lawn chemicals to keep mosquitoes away. Not only can they be expensive, they may pose health risks to pets and people.