By Lisa Profera
Summer is here! It is time to guard yourself and your loved ones from insect bites and the diseases they may cause. One nice thing about Michigan winter is that we get a reprieve from biting insects; but now, the bugs are back. Bug bites are not only annoying and itchy, but they can sometimes cause serious diseases or allergic reactions.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) website is a good resource for information on local concerns regarding biting/stinging insects. There is also excellent information on what to expect when travelling to other areas in the US and around the world (www.cdc.gov/travel). Their basic information on prevention of bug bites, especially as it relates to Zika-infected mosquitoes and Lyme disease from deer ticks, is worth the read. Most of these recommendations are familiar to you. Avoid the outdoors at dawn and dusk (peak mosquito times), wear protective clothing such as long pants and sleeves, avoid areas with high grass (where ticks like to be) or standing water (where mosquitoes lay eggs), and sleep with the windows either closed or screened. If sleeping outdoors, use a mosquito net.
In most cases of insect-borne illness, it is not the insect itself that causes the disease; it is a result of microbes that the bugs carry. They are injected into your system during the bite. Experiencing itchy bug bites, painful stings, or removing a tick from your skin is an uncomfortable nuisance. Sometimes these punctures can allow surface bacteria to enter the skin and cause an infection known as cellulitis (usually caused by staph or strep bacteria). Scratching the bite can further alter the integrity of our skin’s protective barrier from the outside world, resulting in a secondary infection. These types of infections can be quite serious, and challenging to treat as in the case of MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus).
Stings from bees or other hymenoptera (wasps, hornets, fire ants, etc.) can cause local reactions and can become secondarily infected. A sting can be life-threatening for those with a serious allergy (anaphylaxis).
Getting Lyme disease can wreak havoc on your health. Infected ticks can transmit the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria to humans. The initial tick bite and early symptoms (fever, rash, headache, malaise) can sometimes be missed. Prolonged infection can result in chronic disease affecting the joints, the heart, and the nervous system. For more information on Lyme disease, check the CDC website (https://www.cdc.gov/lyme/). For a complete list of all tick-borne diseases, including the new “Lyme variants,” check https://www.cdc.gov/ticks/diseases/index.html.
The Zika virus is transmitted to humans via the bite of an infected Aedes species of mosquito. Its worst effects occur in a developing fetus, causing serious brain malformations. Pregnant women or women planning a pregnancy should avoid travel to areas where Zika is known to be endemic. Texas and Florida are considered risk areas as well as the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. Many cases of travel-acquired Zika virus infection have been reported in Michigan residents in 2017. Zika can also be transmitted though sexual contact. For the latest updates, check https://www.cdc.gov/zika/
Traveling to warmer climates can expose you to other mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever, and malaria (all reported in the US travelers). Illness caused by West Nile Virus and other arboviruses also occur in the US (https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/outdoor/mosquito-borne/other.html).
What about bug spray? This can be a confusing topic. There is no bug repellant that is 100% effective. The CDC recommends using an EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) registered insect repellent. These include synthetic chemicals such as DEET (N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide), Picaridin, IR 3535, 2-undecanone or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Although DEET is a popular choice, it is a known neurotoxin (classified as Category 3 “slightly toxic” by the EPA). Applications of high concentrations of DEET are not considered safe for children. Combining DEET with the popular sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone can result in increased skin absorption of DEET and penetration into the blood steam and nervous system. Although Picaridin is not considered toxic to humans, up to 60% of this chemical is absorbed through our skin when applied. It is toxic to fish but not birds. The active chemical in Picardin was designed to mimic the naturally-occurring terpene, piperene, found in black pepper. IR 3535 (ethyl butylacetylaminopropionate) is a synthetic substance that is considered “functionally identical” to beta-alanine, an amino acid. Although topical use of IR 3535 is considered safe, there have been reports of parasthesia in people who have taken high doses of beta-alanine. 2-undecanone is a synthetic ketone. The natural version of this compound is found in soybean oil, rue, clove, ginger, and a few fruits. Once again, the synthetic version it is considered safe by the EPA.
Last but not least, the EPA recommends Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus as an equally effective alternative to DEET and the above-mentioned chemicals. Only brands that are registered with the EPA such as “Repel” and “Off Botanicals” are promoted on their website. Unfortunately, the Lemon Eucalyptus oil found in these brands is a synthetic copy of 1 chemical isolate, not a pure, whole-plant-based essential oil. We know that whole oils work better than their isolated constituents. Some essential oils are produced by plants specifically to repel pests and serve as their natural defense. Geraniums are a popular window box plant not only because they are pretty, but because they discourage bugs from entering the home.
The best combination of bug-repelling whole-plant-based essential oils is TerraShield® by doTERRA. It is a proprietary blend of Lemon Eucalyptus oil plus arborvitae, nootka, ylang ylang, cedarwood, catnip, and litsea fruit oils. The tamanu oil in this formulation helps bind the other components so that they work better together, and the vanilla bean absolute ensures long-lasting efficacy. Used in a base of fractionated coconut oil, the components of TerraShield® stay on the skin longer (3-6 hours), so re-applications are not needed as often as they are with other brands of “Natural” or “Organic” bug repellants (these have water or alcohol as their first ingredient, so they evaporate quickly from the skin). TerraShield® repels all kinds of biting insects including mosquitoes, ticks, no-see-ums, bees, and wasps.
Although not formally researched by the EPA, essential oils have been used for centuries for pest control. Much research is being done, as we need to find safer, better measures for reducing the impact of mosquito larvae and other pests. There is a recently-published research article on the repellent and larvicidal effects of eucalytpus oil on Aedes mosquito species (J Med Entomology, May 2017). Compared with its main biochemical constituent, 1-8 cineole, in its isolated form, the whole-plant oil was more effective. This once again illustrates the superior efficacy of the whole plant (major and minor components) vs. an isolate; also known as the “Entourage Effect”.
As always, when making a choice for you and your family, I encourage you to do your own research and read labels carefully. As I use essential oils in my medical practice, I am happy to guide you. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to my website https://www.doterra.com/US/en/site/drprofera for more information.
For a fun outdoor party idea, simply spray TerraShield on decorative ribbons to keep the bugs away!
Use common “scents” defense and don’t let the bugs bug you!
Lisa Profera MD, Your Essential Oils Doctor