To spray or not to spray?

Lyme disease – an infectious disease spread by ticks that thrive in wooded areas – is on the rise in the Northeast. The disease can be debilitating if undiagnosed, causing chronic fatigue, joint pain andneurological problems.

As a mom, it’s a really worry for me.  My kids are outside every day, often on trails or in wooded areas.  I check them daily for ticks, but one would be easy to miss.

This year, I’ve often debated with other parents the risk and benefits of using bug spray. On one hand, there is clear evidence that the insecticide DEET – or N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide – effectively repels ticks.  But on the other hand, there are cases where it is clear that DEET has led to health problems including skin problems, hallucinations and seizures.

So I went hunting for some more sweeping analyses on what the evidence says about DEET. The Journal of Family Practice provided a good summary of several systematic reviews on the use of DEET in children. Both found the risk of adverse reactions was low – about 0.1 percent of children exposed experiences an adverse reaction – and that there was no clear dose-dependent relationship between exposure and extent of severity of the reaction.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control maintains that DEET doesn’t present health concerns if it’s used according to the instructions, including not applying it to open wounds, under clothing, or near eyes or mouth.

As a mother, though, the narrative reports of small children undergoing hospitalization for seizures and neurological problems – even though it’s a very small number of cases over decades – stick in my mind.  So we use bug spray with DEET sparingly.  If I know the kids will be in the woods or fields where there are higher populations of ticks, I’ll give them a light spray – always with a bath that night to wash off all of the spray.  Even though the evidence shows DEET is safe, I still feel uneasy about this issue.

What about you? Are you comfortable using buy spray on a regular basis?


  1. Simon says:

    Don’t have to worry too much about Lymes’ disease here. But when faced with the question of mosquitoes I noted that advice was to prefer DEET over citronella based products, because the evidence was better for DEET in terms of safety.

    The military have been here, and use permethrin spray against ticks.

    The nastier symptoms are more common with increasing age, which should be slightly reassuring for parents.

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