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How to Actually Protect Yourself Against Mosquito Bites

In addition to being annoying and itchy, these bloodsuckers can carry some gnarly diseases.
How to Actually Prevent Mosquito Bites According to Experts
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I’m one of those people mosquitoes love. Whenever I visit my relatives in South Carolina or take a trip to the Jersey Shore, I—without fail—end up with itchy bites scattered along my legs and arms. They bug me (heh) to no end, but, until recently, I’ve shrugged off how pathogenic these pests can be.

After reading that a handful of people contracted malaria—a mosquito-borne disease caused by a parasite—locally in Florida and Texas, it’s become clear that I can’t continue to ignore the threat mosquitoes pose to human health. The cases were unrelated to one another, and they’re particularly alarming because this is the first time there’s been an outbreak in the US in two decades (though the risk is still low).

There are tons of diseases these little vampires can transmit to humans, including in the United States, where Zika and West Nile virus are known to spread. Elsewhere, dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, and malaria can affect travelers or people who live in places where they’re prevalent. Estimates suggest that fewer than 10% of mosquitoes are capable of spreading pathogens that can make people sick, but being around them sans protection is a serious gamble. Most cases of these illnesses start with flu-like symptoms—fever, chills, and headache—but some severe infections can lead to serious complications in some people. And look: Even when they don’t spread serious diseases, mosquito bites suck, especially for people who have gnarly allergic reactions to them.

Daniel Pastula, MD, MHS, chief of neuroinfectious diseases and global neurology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, tells SELF that mosquitoes are one of the most dangerous-to-humans animals out there. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they kill more people than any other creature (that’s right—they’re actually scarier than bears, snakes, or sharks, when you think about it). “They’re flying needles that drink up blood—and, potentially, make us sick,” Dr. Pastula says. They’re a massive public health problem—and, because of warming temperatures associated with climate change, it’s only getting worse: Mosquitoes are living longer, biting more, and invading areas where they historically haven’t resided before.

We have vaccines for some mosquito-borne illnesses, like Japanese encephalitis, and there are preventative malaria pills you can take before and during travel to destinations where you’re especially at risk of contracting the disease, but we don’t have medicines to protect us against most of the illnesses these flying dangers can give us, making mosquito-bite prevention super important. Fortunately, warding off these bugs is pretty simple—here’s how to go about it.

Know when mosquitoes are most active in your area—and make a game plan.

Mosquitoes can be found pretty much everywhere, says Dr. Pastula, and specific kinds thrive in different environments. For example, you don’t need to worry about mosquitoes tearing up your legs if you’re in Colorado in February—but if you take a summer trip to Florida, you may want to up your prevention game: The species that spread diseases like chikungunya, dengue, Zika, and West Nile may be buzzing around.

Timing is key too: The Culex mosquito, common in the Central Plains in the US, loves to come out when the sun is down between dusk and dawn. On the other hand, Aedes mosquitoes, which are more common in the southeast and West Coast, bite all day long and take a break at night.

Dr. Pastula recommends checking to see when these little terrors are especially a problem where you live or in the places you visit. You can find this info on your state or local public health department’s website. There’s also this tool from the CDC that provides county-level data. Knowing what’s active in your area and when will help you take extra precautions (tips dropping below!) when it’s riskiest outside.

Wear insect repellent more strategically.

Wearing insect repellent is the very best thing you can do to prevent mosquito bites and potential infections. There are a handful of varieties out there (here’s the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guide to safe, effective repellents) that work by either masking your scent so mosquitoes can’t detect you or by repelling the bugs.

The most well-known repellent is DEET. It has that chemical stench you may recall from sleepover camp, but it works very well, says Dr. Pastula. There’s also picaridin (an odorless spray made from the pepper plant), IR3535, and products made with oil of lemon eucalyptus.

A few tips:

  • Stick to products that have been registered with the EPA. If a repellent is not included in its directory, there’s no evidence it works, says Dr. Pastrula.
  • Steer clear of products that claim to be “natural” repellents. Many, like peppermint and/or cedar oil, have not gotten the EPA’s seal of approval.
  • Similarly: Sorry to break it to you, but citronella candles don’t really work.
  • Repellents that contain 10 to 35% DEET or picaridin will do the trick. After that, a higher percentage doesn’t necessarily mean the product is more effective, says Dr. Pastula.
  • Apply insect repellent on top of sunscreen (if you’re wearing both, which you should be).
Protect your home.

Keeping your windows open invites bugs into your home. If you like natural air in your home, use screens or netting to block out intruders. Closing your doors and running the AC can also help prevent them from getting inside.

Mosquitoes love to breed in water, so if you have any outside containers that may be collecting stagnant water, get rid of it (think: buckets, old tires, flower pots, or bird baths). If you collect rainwater or have a pool in your backyard, use covers to keep mosquitoes from laying eggs there. A sign that they’ve set up shop: little wriggling things in the water. That’s larvae, and you should dump out the water right away.

Put on protective clothing.

If you’re venturing into an area that’s probably infested (such as a forest, marsh, or a place with tall grass), wear long-sleeve shirts and pants if the temperature allows. Clothing acts as a simple, natural barrier between you and insects. It doesn’t offer a 100% guarantee you won’t get got (as someone who’s been chomped through their shirt, I can attest to this), but “you’re less likely to get bitten by a mosquito if you’re covered up,” says Dr. Pastula.

In places experiencing outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases, it’s not a bad idea to treat your clothing and shoes with an insecticide called permethrin (or buying pretreated gear!). Permethrin is a super-powerful insecticide: At a concentration of 0.5%, permethrin-treated clothing successfully repels all kinds of bugs, including mosquitoes and ticks (just don’t put it directly on your skin). Using permethrin is pretty easy—you spray the liquid on your clothing or soak your clothing in it, run your stuff through the wash, then let it dry—and it’s effective for up to six months or six washes.

Mosquitoes aren’t going anywhere, as much as we wish they would. They’ve been around for millions of years and will always be, says Dr. Pastula. They’ve spent all that time perfecting the art of biting humans, and they’re only getting better at it. It’s time to level up your bug-spray game. We have the tools to stop them! We just need to use them.