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Bug spray on kids: Is it safe?

Jane Forester, DO, received her undergraduate degree from Cornell University in 1980, and a Master's degree in counseling psychology from UC Berkeley in 1982. She practiced as a psychotherapist for six years before attending medical scho...

Kids say bug off!

Is it safe to use insect repellents on your child -- and if so, what should you look for (and look out for)? We have some advice for you here.

Little Girl with Bug Bites

The question:

What should I look for -- or avoid -- in a bug-repellent to use on my children, ages 3 and 6? - Samantha in Portland, Oregon

The Physician answers:

This is one of those questions where I will tell you what my advice is as a physician -- and then I will answer as a hiking, camping mother of two toddlers in bug-infested areas.

I would assume that Portland, being so wet, would have a very persistent, aggressive and not-so-seasonal mosquito population, putting you and your children at a constant risk of being attacked.

Some preventative measures are dressing your children in light-colored clothing rather than dark clothing. The insects are naturally repelled by whites and tans. Wearing long sleeves and long pants with white socks pulled over the pant cuffs really make a difference (this also works against ticks). Keeping yourself and your children as unscented as possible also helps: Use unscented shampoo and unscented soap, and do not apply any fragrant lotions.

Now for the insect repellent question. Mostly the debate is over using products containing N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide (DEET) -- a known effective pesticide which has been cited for causing allergy-induced seizures in children, and, in at least one case, resulting in death. This active ingredient is sold over the counter in varying strengths, from 100% down to about 6% DEET. The lesser strengths are formulated to be used on children and are purported to be safe.

Whether or not to use DEET is a decision is left to be made by the parents. Unlike years ago when there were no good non-DEET alternatives, we are no longer forced to watch our children get attacked by insects or put adult-strength DEET on them. We can now put very low percentage products on them, shop our health food stores for natural formula insect repellents or buy Avon Skin-So-Soft products.

I know I began this answer by stating that I would tell you what I do with my toddlers, although I can't endorse it as a physician: I spray the kids' pants and back of their clothing with a DEET product. This way, I'm not directly exposing their skin and systems to DEET, yet they have the advantages of its protection.

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