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How to Be Repellent -- to Bugs

Want to avoid bug bites this year? Get them before they get you.

WebMD Feature

You're lying in your tent and you hear that high-pitched drilling noise, tiny at first, then louder, louder. Mosquitoes! Is there anything more annoying? Well, how about ticks? Or those insane no-see-ums? Sssh, don't tell, but bugs outnumber humans gazillions to one and are only letting us live here.

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In recent years, however, these aggravating little monsters have become downright dangerous, spreading serious diseases in many parts of the country. According to the CDC, more than 20,000 cases of insect-related illnesses are confirmed each year.

West Nile virus has slowly been making its way across the country since its arrival in the U.S. in 1999. Unfortunate campers and residents in many parts of the Northeast trail IV poles as they undergo long-term antibiotic treatment for tick-borne Lyme disease. Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which also is tick-borne, has climbed down from the Rockies.

It's war!

Keeping insects at bay is a battle fought on several fronts. First, you can try to get them before they get you. This is the philosophy behind community spraying efforts, which often end up bathing humans in insecticide, killing beneficial insects, and leaving many fertile, harmful insects left to fight again. At very least, though, you could drain standing water in your yard so mosquitoes won't breed in it.

People also apply insecticides to themselves or their clothing. One such, permethrin, is sold in a number of products, including Permanone (check labels). The CDC recommends applying this to clothing, not skin.

Even the most popular "skin" insecticide, DEET -- used as a repellent by one-third of the population in the United States -- must be used with extreme caution. A study done at Duke University and published in the November 2001 Journal of Experimental Neurology showed that frequent and prolonged applications of DEET (in an average human dose adjusted to rat size) caused neurons to die in regions of rat brains that control muscle movement, learning, memory, and concentration.

"The rats didn't look any different," says lead researcher Mohamed Abou-Donia, PhD, professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke, "but when we challenged them with a task, they failed."

Abou-Donia became interested in this subject while studying veterans who used DEET in concentrations of 70% and in concert with permethrin (not recommended, by the way). "We think part of the problem experienced by some vets may be due to DEET," says Abou-Donia, referring to Gulf War veterans' illness.

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