The first step to avoiding bites? Knowing when bugs are out and hungry. Mosquitoes are most active at dawn and dusk, while black flies are most apt to be on the prowl during the late afternoon and early evening. If you can’t avoid those times, dress your kids in light-coloured clothing with long sleeves; tuck their pants into their socks; and have them wear closed-toed shoes, particularly if you’re going to be in wooded or swampy areas. Avoid dark or bright-coloured clothing, which may attract insects and make ticks harder to spot, and scented lotions, which can lure bees, wasps and flies.
There are two main repellent ingredients recommended by the Canadian Paediatric Society for being effective at protecting kids against bugs like mosquitoes and ticks: DEET and icaridin. Though you’ve likely heard of DEET, icaridin is newer to the market. A synthetic version of a compound found in black pepper, icaridin was approved for use as an insect repellent in Canada in 2012. It may be less apt to irritate the skin than DEET, and it isn’t greasy or smelly. Products that contain icaridin typically come in one of two concentrations—10 percent or 20 percent—both of which are considered safe for use in kids over six months of age. The 10 percent concentration protects against mosquitoes for five hours and deer ticks for seven, while the 20 percent keeps mosquitoes at bay for seven hours, and deer ticks for eight.
When using DEET, look for a concentration of no more than 10 percent for kids six months to 12 years. This strength offers between 2.5 and 4.5 hours of protection, and can be applied once daily up until age two, and three times a day in older kids.
Whichever repellent you choose, it should be sprayed lightly on clothing and exposed skin. For the face, spray a bit on your hands and gently rub it on, avoiding the eyes and mouth (or use a towelette). And be sure to wait 20 minutes after rubbing on sunscreen to layer on your repellent. In order to work properly, sunscreen has to be in contact with the skin, says Todd Prochnau, a pharmacist in Sylvan Lake, Alta., and a spokesperson for the Canadian Pharmacists Association. Plus, a sunscreen ingredient can increase absorption of DEET through the skin when it’s applied earlier.
It’s best not to expose kids to repellent any longer than necessary, so wash it off when you come indoors.
Protect babies wisely
No repellent is recommended in babies six months and younger, so “try to keep them under netting,” advises Janice Heard, a Calgary paediatrician and member of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s Public Education Advisory Committee. “There are stroller covers and little tents you can use if you’re outdoors.”
And don’t assume that just because a product is natural it’s better for young kids—lemon eucalyptus oil repellents aren’t recommended for children under three years of age. For kids over three, they’ll protect against mosquitoes, but only for about two hours.
Care for bites
If your kid does get bit, “a cold compress can decrease the itch or burning from a bite or sting, and reduce swelling,” Heard says. “A cool bath can also help.” Unfortunately, the more kids scratch a bite, the more it itches, so try to distract them. “When kids aren’t paying attention to the bites, they’ll often stop scratching,” says Heard. If your child just can’t take the itch, apply hydrocortisone cream. But don’t use it on large areas, broken skin, or near the eyes or mouth.
Antihistamines can also help in more severe cases. “If kids just get clobbered by mosquitoes, or they’re sensitive to the bites, Benadryl will help with the itching,” says Prochnau. “It’s safe in kids two years and older, and can be used under two years on the advice of a doctor.” Because older-generation antihistamines make most kids drowsy (beware: they have the opposite effect in some children!), they can sometimes be helpful when itching interferes with sleep.
In the case of multiple stings, bites near the eye, bites that are painful and look infected, or bites that are accompanied by a fever, get them checked out by your child’s doctor, suggests Heard. “Often, it’s just a matter of reassurance.”