How to Avoid Insect Bites While Traveling

Close up of mosquito biting someone

The Facts About Mosquito Bites


Vintage Content

Mosquitoes kill more people every year than snakes, sharks, angry porcupines, or even bullets. The best defense is avoiding them in the first place!

Avoiding Insect Bites

700,000,000 people get a disease from a mosquito, each year. Of those diseases, one out of 17 people currently alive will die from the disease.

Bad Girls

The species to know about are Aedes, Culex and Anopheles. These are the bad girls that carry diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever and filariasis. I say “bad girls” because only the female mosquito bites mammals. The growth on new mosquitoes requires a blood meal. The males are content to only feed from flowers. Certain types of mosquitoes prefer animals, some prefer humans and some feed from both.

What Attracts Mosquitoes?

What attracts mosquitoes is not fully clear, yet. Mosquitoes do have developed senses of vision, thermal/heat sense and smell. They use all of their senses to find food. It is believed that the olfactory (smell) sense is the most important in finding victims.

During the daytime, dark colored clothing and movement help a female mosquito “lock on” to its target, at long range. As the mosquito nears her prey, the senses of smell and thermal sense take over. Carbon Dioxide and Lactic Acid are two of the most studied mosquito attractants. CO2 is mainly found in exhaled breaths and lactic acid can be found on the skin when muscles are being used, as in exercise. Lastly, skin temperature and skin moisture guide the mosquito to where they want to bite, on the body. It is widely assumed that certain species of mosquito prefer different body parts; hands, face, feet, etc. This could be due to the differences in local skin temperatures. Scented soaps, cologne, lotions and hair products can also attract mosquitoes.

As for personal preference, adults are preferred over children. Men are more commonly bitten than women and larger people get bit more than smaller people, possible due to their increased CO2 output. It also appears my wife is preferred over to me.

Chemical Repellents

DEET (N,N Diethyl 3 Methylbenzamide) is the gold standard of insect repellent. It has been well studied for over 50 years and provides protection not only against mosquitoes but also flies, chiggers, ticks and fleas. The concentrations of DEET available range from 5% to 100% and the higher the concentration of DEET, the longer the time of protection. Concerns over long term exposure to high doses of DEET have led to the US Military to adopt a 35% slow release formula. The medical literature disagrees over a formula that accurately predicts number of hours of protection and DEET percentage.

One study indicates a 4 hour protection with 50% DEET while another indicates 12.5% DEET protected for 6 hours. Products with 20-35% DEET generally provide adequate coverage for most instances. There are reports of skin irritation occurring more frequently with percentages greater than 35%. The Pediatricians advise nothing more than 10% DEET for children less than 12 years old. Use of DEET with sun-block lowers the efficacy of the sun-block.

So, more frequent applications of sunscreen will be needed for adequate solar protection. The DEET spray is applied to the skin, first. Sunscreen is applied over the top of the DEET spray. I remember this because the DEET protects your blood and stays the closest. Sunscreen protects against the sun, which is further away. DEET is a well studied and commonly used chemical. High dose DEET has been shown to not be a neuro-toxin. There have been several cases of encephalopathy (brain swelling), mostly in children, with prolonged exposure and inappropriate use of DEET. DEET works by inhibiting signals from the mosquitoes’ antennae and making it hard for them to find you.

Other Options to Avoid Insect Bites While Traveling

Avon Skin-So-Soft is known to be a mosquito repellent. Lab studies showed a 30-minute protection time against Aedes mosquitoes. Ideas as to why it is a repellent center around either fragrance of the cream or the chemicals it contains, benzophenone and diisopropyl adipate.

Permethrin is an insecticide that helps avoid insect bites by killing or stunning bugs. Permethrin is effective against mosquitoes, ticks, flies, chiggers and fleas. The chemical does not easily absorb into the skin. This is applied to clothing, bed nets or screens, as a spray.

Citronella is known as the “natural” mosquito repellent. Derived from a plant, Cymbopogon Nardus, the oil has a lemon-like scent. Studies have shown that burning citronella candles and/or incense decrease the number of insect bites, for those near to the candles or incense.

Timing Is Everything

Most species of mosquitoes bite at dawn and dusk. Avoiding being outside will lessen your chances of bites. When you are sleeping at night, in open-air environments, a bed net is definitely shown to help avoid insect bites. Often, those staying in nicer hotel rooms, with climate control, do not need netting. Open windows mean a need for netting.

About the Author:

Erik McLaughlin

Erik McLaughlin, M.D., lives in Chicago and is dedicated to helping travelers around the world stay healthy. He writes for a variety of outlets.

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