With this summer looking like a banner year for mosquitoes, Toronto mom Helen Dinh* is investigating ways to keep them from snacking on her daughter, who experiences an unusually strong response to bites. “She welts up like crazy,” Dinh says, explaining that the skin surrounding her daughter’s bite swells up like a red, hot, itchy balloon. (Such local reactions aren’t uncommon, but bona fide allergies to mosquito bites are rare.)
The first step in reducing your child’s chances of getting bitten is to limit exposure by getting rid of any standing water on your property, and staying indoors at dawn and dusk, when the insects come out in droves. Wearing long sleeves and pants in light colours also helps, particularly when going to mosquitoes’ favourite hangouts, like wooded or wet, boggy areas. Finally, skip heavily scented products, which can turn kids into bug bait.
These strategies aren’t always practical, and that’s where mosquito repellents come in. Products containing DEET as the active ingredient are the most effective: Those with a concentration of 10 percent or less are safe for kids from six months to 12 years (do not use DEET on babies younger than six months), according to the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS). Apply these repellents only once a day on children younger than two, and up to three times daily for kids ages two to 12.
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While DEET is the only repellent recommended by the CPS, there are two other types that Health Canada approves: products containing p-Menthane-3,8-diol or oil of lemon eucalyptus (for children three and up) and those made with soybean oil (for any age). Both have been shown to be effective against mosquitoes, but offer shorter-lived protection than DEET, explains Philip Emberley, director of pharmacy innovation with the Canadian Pharmacists Association. Some parents turn to homemade alternatives, like this recipe from David Suzuki’s website: Add nine drops each of essential oils peppermint, citronella and lemongrass to a spray bottle, along with a quarter cup of spring water and one tablespoon of vodka, and mist on skin and clothes. (Note that even essential oils can trigger skin reactions in susceptible kids, which is one reason the CPS suggests avoiding non-DEET repellents.)
For her part, Dinh is stocking up on remedies that soothe the swelling and itching when her daughter does get a bite, such as calamine lotion and cold packs. Other options include sticks and sprays containing baking soda or numbing agents. Some products aren’t recommended for kids younger than two, so please check labels. *Name changed by request.
A version of this article appeared in our August 2013 issue with the headline, “Bug off,” p. 32.