By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Every year thousands of us travel to countries where the sun is scorching, the sea is sparkling and, unfortunately, the bugs are biting. That familiar whine of a mosquito signals the start of an itchy, irritating experience.
Insect bites can seriously affect your vacation fun but, worldwide, the critters cause much deadlier consequences. Mosquitoes infected up to 311 million people with malaria in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Around 1,200 people in the United States are diagnosed with malaria each year, according to the Directors of Health Promotion and Education. These cases were mostly in people who had recently arrived in the country or returned from travelling in a tropical or sub-tropical destination.
What are the symptoms of malaria?
Symptoms of malaria are similar to the flu and may include chills, fever, headache, muscle ache, fatigue, nausea and vomiting. Certain strains of malaria can result in kidney failure and seizures and cause coma and death, so if you come down with flu-like symptoms up to one year after travelling to a country with malaria go to the doctor immediately.
What other health problems are caused by insect bites?
Mosquitoes can also carry yellow fever and dengue fever. Many more species of insect are hungry for our blood. Ticks and biting flies may cause Lyme disease. Flies, fleas and midges cause irritation to the skin and bed bugs can drive you crazy with itching.
Are we safe from mosquitoes at home?
It seems we're increasingly unable to escape biting insects at home in the United States. According to the Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University there are around 200 species of mosquito in America and they live everywhere from urban areas to swampy marshes. A very small number of malaria cases in the United States come from direct transmission from American mosquitoes. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes aren't the only issue. Research from the Maryland Department of Agriculture identifies the Asian tiger mosquito as a growing problem in Maryland. This white-striped species of mosquito was introduced from Asia into all counties in Maryland through the trade in used tires, and has become a real pest - these mosquitoes are aggressive biters and difficult to kill. In 1999 the West Nile virus was detected in the New York City area and by 2005 had spread to 48 states. The virus is carried by mosquitoes and more than 3,000 cases were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2006 and 2007.
What causes an insect bite to itch?
Even if the insect that bites you isn't carrying any serious disease, the itch is enough to make you want to stay indoors in future. Itching and swelling from mosquito bites is caused by the anti-coagulating substance from the bug's saliva that is injected into the skin. Itching from insect bites can persist for a few days and a bite can cause a raised lump on the skin. Occasionally, more serious reactions can arise from insect bites such as respiratory distress and swelling. If you experience these severe symptoms, contact a health professional.
Insect bites are a common problem but as with many conditions and diseases, prevention is better than cure. Can you prevent the irritation caused by biting insects? What's the best way to stop annoying insects in their tracks?
We've reviewed current medical research to find the following Top 10 best remedies for insect bites:
1. DEET is the First Line of Defense Against Biting Insects
The chemical DEET has made a name for itself as the most widely used insect repellent. DEET works by covering up the irresistible smell of carbon dioxide that we give off and which the bugs find so alluring. The most effective insect repellents contain between 20 to 30 percent DEET. Apply DEET carefully so you don't get it in your eyes or mouth, and don't apply DEET under clothing.
2. Citronella to Chase Away Insects
If you're allergic to DEET, or find the chemical too harsh on your skin, try a natural repellent made from citronella oil. Citronella smells much better than DEET-based repellents and it may be nearly as useful in preventing insect bites. A 1996 study from the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada found subjects seated close to three percent citronella candles had 42.3 percent fewer bites and people near five percent citronella incense had 24.2 percent fewer bites. Citronella oil is also used to make sprays and lotions and can be a useful addition to your insect-fighting arsenal, although you may need to reapply citronella at regular intervals.
3. Use Garlic Against Insect Bites
It's a popular folk remedy but can garlic ward off smaller biters than vampires? A 2005 study from the University of Connecticut Health Center, Farmington didn't provide enough evidence to stake garlic's claim as an effective insect repellent. However, subjects in the study only ate garlic once and the body may need a more sustained intake of garlic in order for it to be successful. A 2000 study by Stjernberg L, and Berglund J looked at 80 Swedish soldiers who consumed 1,200mg of garlic a day, and found a small reduction in the number of tick bites the garlic eaters received.
4. Use Eucalyptus to Prevent Insect Bites
Using eucalyptus to discourage insects from biting in the first place. Choose lemon eucalyptus because it is the most effective.
When the oil of the lemon eucalyptus tree is distilled, it leaves behind a derivative called PMD which has been shown to be one of the most effective plant-based repellents, according to a 2006 study from the University of California-Davis and Carroll-Loye Biological Research. In a June 2006 Consumer Reports article a lemon eucalyptus-based repellent was found to be the best non-DEET insect repellent. A 1991 study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture also found quwenling, a Chinese insect repellent derived from the lemon eucalyptus plant, was effective against two out of four of the mosquitoes tested but it had a shorter duration of effectiveness than DEET.
5. Soybean Oil Helps Prevent Insect Bites
Other natural repellents have shown promise as bite-blockers. A 2002 study from Chapel Hill Dermatology, Chapel Hill, NC tested a number of repellents against DEET and found a soybean oil-based substance to be the most effective natural repellent, offering protection against mosquito bites for an average of 94.6 minutes, equivalent to a dose of low-strength DEET.
6. Can Fennel Work Against Insect Bites?
A small 2004 study from Seoul National University in Korea seems to think so. The study found a mosquito repellent containing five percent fennel oil was 84 percent effective against insect bites after 90 minutes and an eight percent fennel oil cream was 70 percent effective after 90 minutes.
7. Try Thyme to Prevent Insect Bites
Other natural ingredients in the herb garden may also help stop biting insects. Seoul National University in Korea carried out a study in 2005 to look at carvacrol and alpha-terpinene, two compounds derived from thyme essential oil. Researchers found a spray made with two percent alpha terpinene made a promising mosquito repellent. However, thyme oil can be irritating to the skin so use with caution.
8. Could Celery Be a Cure for Insect Bites?
Extract of celery proved a useful protection against biting insects in a 2005 study from the Faculty of Medicine, Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Researchers discovered celery extract caused very few side effects on the skin and was as active against biting mosquitoes as a 25 percent DEET formula.
9. Cover Up to Prevent Insect Bites
It pays to be a conservative dresser when it comes to avoiding insect bites. Swap strappy tops and short dresses for long pants and shirts with long sleeves, particularly in the evening and in the early morning when mosquitoes are most active. Wear light colored clothing - it appears dark colors may draw mosquitoes towards you. One of the most effective ways to prevent insects biting, particularly when you are sleeping, is to hang a mosquito net doused with permethrin over the bed. Permethrin, made from chrysanthemum flowers, can only be applied to fabrics so you can also use it on your clothes for double the protection.
10. Homeopathy for Preventing Insect Bites?
A 1995 study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK tested a homeopathic gel from the Netherlands which was made from a mix of homeopathic elements including Echinacea augustifolia, Ledum palustre and Urtica urens plus citronella and eucalyptus oils. The remedy proved no more effective than placebo but experts point to the citronella and eucalyptus, which may 'block' the homeopathic active ingredients.