Summer is here! Longer days, abundant sunshine—and more creeping, crawling, and flying insect companions. Most of the time, bug bites are little more than an itchy nuisance. But some ticks and mosquitoes can transmit serious illness, including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, or West Nile virus. Either way, their bites are something you want to avoid. We asked our experts to share natural bug bite prevention and treatment tips to keep insects from bugging you this season.
Herbal bug repellants
While you’re prettying up the porch and patio and filling the flower beds, try adding some insect-repelling plants.
“Nature provides a variety of botanicals that can reduce the likelihood of getting bug bites,” says Ellen Kamhi, Ph.D, RN, a registered herbalist, medical-school instructor, and author of The Natural Medicine Chest.
Kamhi’s favorite bug-be-gone bloom is scented geranium. “The oil extracted from the mature leaves is used in citronella essential oil, which can be rubbed on the skin or sprinkled around to discourage mosquitoes,” she says. To use it straight from the plant, break off a leaf and rub it directly on your wrists and ankles. Whether you’re using bottled geranium essential oil or oil rubbed fresh from the leaf, test a small area first, Kamhi advises, as some people may develop a rash.
The fragrance of many well-known herbs repels bugs while sprucing up outdoor spaces. Plant these in pots or along the edges of your garden:
- lemon thyme
Natural bug bite prevention and treatment
While there are plenty of bug-repellent sprays, lotions, and other products on the market, many of them contain DEET. Though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved it for use in adults and children, research into DEET’s potential harmful effects on health and the environment has shown mixed results. Many cautious people avoid it. If you prefer a DEET-free alternative, Arizona-based naturopathic physician Tricia Pingel, N.M.D., has some recommendations.
- Use bug-repelling essential oils: No summertime medicine cabinet or camping kit should be missing a bottle of tea tree oil—a favorite of both Pingel and Kamhi. “Tea tree oil not only helps prevent bug bites, but it also reduces skin pain, swelling, and itching [from bites],” Pingel says. Citronella, lavender, lemongrass, and cinnamon oils can also encourage mosquitoes to buzz off. Research has found oregano, rosemary, and thyme oils may work to keep ticks away. (As with all essential oils, mix a few drops into carrier oil before applying, and test first on a small area of skin.)
- Homemade bug spray: Pingel’s DIY bug spray uses both lavender and citronella oils to repel pests. Combine 1 ounce witch hazel, 10 drops citronella essential oil, and 4 drops lavender essential oil in a 2-ounce amber bottle. Fill the rest of the bottle with distilled water, replace the cap, and shake before use.
Bugs will succeed in their attacks sometimes, no matter what preventive steps we take. Here are Pingel’s tips for treating itchy bites and stings:
- Ledum palustre: Keep these homeopathic tablets in your first-aid kit. It relieves swelling and itching from mosquito bites, she says, especially when taken at dawn or dusk, when bugs are most active.
- Apple cider vinegar: Apply ACV topically to a bite to stop itching. If you have sensitive skin, dilute it in a bit of water first.
- Baking soda: Have an itch you can’t stop scratching? Make a poultice by mixing 2 tablespoons of baking soda with a little water. (You can add a few drops of lavender essential oil to the mix, too, if desired.) Apply the paste to the bite for 10 to 20 minutes.
A doctor’s advice on bug bites
How do mosquitoes find their way to our arms and ankles? “Mosquitoes are attracted to the carbon dioxide we exhale and to our skin odors,” says New York City–based internist and gastroenterologist Niket Sonpal, MD. “They use visual cues, movement, and heat to find a possible host.” Using insect repellent on the skin works by interfering with their senses of smell and taste, he says. Here are other easy ways to keep bugs away:
- Wear light-colored clothing: “Mosquitoes prefer darker colors because they are attracted to the heat retained by dark clothing,” Sonpal says. “Light-colored clothing is more likely to reflect heat, so mosquitoes are less likely to notice you.
- Use larvicide briquettes: “These small, donut-shaped tablets release BTI, a bacteria that kills mosquito larvae before they can turn into adults,” Sonpal says. “The good news is BTI is only toxic to mosquitoes and has no toxicity to people, crops, or pets.” Place the briquettes in water sources, such as birdbaths, pools, or flower pots.
- Try mosquito nets: Netting offers a low-tech, time-tested option by serving as a physical barrier between mosquitoes and skin. Usually made from polyester or another synthetic fiber, some may come pretreated with insecticide. They come in all shapes and sizes for use in bedrooms, campsites, backyards, or even headgear.
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