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Bug off: How to prevent and treat bug bites

Some of the most enjoyable parts of summer in Wisconsin can be ruined by bugs. Mosquitos, gnats, ticks and bees like to invade our summer picnics, hikes, baseball games and barbeques. With a few preventative measures and tips for treating bug bites and stings when they do happen, you and your family can enjoy your time outside without the nuisance of itchy bug bites or fear of Lyme disease, West Nile virus and skin infections.

Tell mosquitos, gnats, ticks and bees to bug off with these tips.

How can I avoid bug bites?

Avoiding bug bites can be as simple as knowing where bugs live. Mosquitos specifically enjoy standing water, from a neighborhood pond to something as small as a birdbath, and ticks like wooded or brushy areas with tall grass. Many other bugs like gardens with blooming flowers and any areas that have uncovered food or beverages.

Wearing — or not wearing — certain clothing can also help you and your family avoid bug bites. Don’t wear strong perfumes, scented soaps or lotions, or bright colored clothing as those can attract bugs. Wearing long sleeves and pants along with close-toed shoes can also help avoid bug bites.

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Avoiding certain areas or wearing long pants isn’t always an option, though, and that’s when insect repellent can help.

What kind of insect repellent should I buy?

Insect repellent can be your best friend in summer, but you have to choose the right kind for you and your children. First, start with a lotion or a pump spray instead of an aerosol, as aerosols can increase the risk of inhaling chemicals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using a product with one of the following active ingredients: DEET, Picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus (also known as PMD).

DEET works very well, but it is important that it is used correctly. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that DEET not be used on children younger than two months of age and that repellents used on children contain no more than 30 percent DEET.

It’s best to avoid lotions that combine sunscreen and DEET. Sunscreen needs to be reapplied every few hours, but you shouldn’t overexpose your child to DEET. Apply each product separately, while always following the directions on the label.

DEET has been the most common active ingredient in insect repellents for a long time, but newer alternatives such as Picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus/PMD and other natural repellents have been shown to be effective as well. Picaridin is a non-toxic, colorless, odorless synthetic ingredient found in some bug repellents. It works much like DEET to give long-lasting protection against mosquitoes and ticks. Products with Picaridin can be used on babies as young as two months. Oil of lemon eucalyptus/PMD is a natural oil that works well to protect against mosquitoes, but not ticks. It is not recommended for use in children under 3 years old.

How do I use insect repellent for the best results?

Once you've chosen a bug repellent, it's important that you use it properly in order for it to be safe and effective. Start by reading labels carefully and following the instructions. Different repellents work in different ways so they should be applied according to their label.

When applying repellent, put it on your hands first and then rub it in on your child. This can help you avoid using too much as heavy amounts of repellent are not needed for it to work well. Only apply the product to exposed skin while avoiding the eyes, mouth or any cuts or irritation on the skin. Always apply repellent outside and never near food.

Wash your hands immediately after applying insect repellent to avoid accidentally getting it in your eyes or mouth, and make sure to wash repellent off you and your children with soap and water after coming inside.

Keep in mind that repellents work on biting insects like mosquitoes, flies and ticks, but they don’t repel stinging insects like bees and hornets.

How should I treat bug bites and stings?

Even with all of these measures, sometimes we still get bug bites or stings. Your first instinct may be to scratch the bite, but do your best to resist that urge and help your children do the same. Instead of scratching, use an anti-itch product such as Eucerin anti-itch spray, Sarna anti-itch lotion, 1 percent Hydrocortisone cream, Prax, Pramosone (prescription only), Itch X or Aveeno Anti-Itch.

For more painful stings, try a cold, wet wash cloth (or ice wrapped in a towel) on the area. Keep the bite or sting areas clean and wash your hands before touching the areas.

If your child has many bites or stings or is having a lot of itching or swelling, using an over-the-counter antihistamine like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or cetirizine (Zyrtec) can provide some relief. Check with your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions about these medicines.

If your child’s itching or swelling persists or worsens after three or four days, it‘s time to talk to your doctor. Also check with your doctor if your child gets hives (itchy welts) or if the redness is spreading.

Call 911 if your child has severe allergy symptoms like throat itching or swelling, wheezing, or trouble breathing. If your child is stung and is allergic to stinging insects, use your EpiPen if you have one while waiting for help.