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Bugging Out: Protecting Your Kids from Creepy Crawlers This Summer

May 20, 2014

Posted in Safety

By Sam Smith, MD, Surgeon in Chief, Arkansas Children's Hospital

It's tick season. And mosquito season. And chigger season. Is there any bug that isn't causing us trouble these days? If we're soaking up the summer sun, we're also easy targets for all sorts of disease-carrying insects.

Parents wonder what they should do to protect their kids from these pests. The easy thing would be to keep them out of an environment that exposes them to bugs. But that's not realistic or healthy!

Pediatricians frequently field questions from parents who want to know if it's safe to use insect repellent on their children. Honestly, a repellent with DEET is one of the only prevention methods that's been proven to deter biting bugs. Research backs up that the stronger the DEET concentration in an insect repellent, the longer it lasts and more effective it is.

But it's important to be careful about how you use insect repellant. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that the highest concentration of DEET used on children should be 30 percent. They also suggest that parents only use a repellent if their child is over 2 months old. There are several brands of repellent with lower DEET concentrations that are marketed as being more kid-friendly.

There are other repellents available, including those that use picaradin, but research indicates they're much less effective than DEET.

Some families also prefer natural alternatives like essential oils found in citronella and eucalyptus. And don't forget good old-fashioned Skin So Soft. All of these are options, but they may last only a couple of hours, require reapplication and still won't prevent those creepy crawlers from infiltrating your patio time.

There are some important guidelines for families looking to fend off insects with repellents:

  • Never apply bug spray directly to a child's face. You can avoid this by spraying some on your own hands and gently rubbing it on your child's face, being careful to keep it away from the eyes and mouth.
  • Spray insect repellent in an open area so neither you nor your child inhales it.
  • Using more repellent doesn't make it work better; only use enough to lightly cover exposed skin and clothing.
  • Be sure to wash kids' skin with soap and water using repellent.
  • Don't use bug sprays on skin that is cut or irritated. (That means keep it off the skinned knees or sunburns we see this time of year!)
  • If your child has an allergic reaction to the repellent, immediately wash the area where it was applied with soap and water. Then call the Arkansas Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 for additional guidance.

There are some simple actions your family can take to reduce the likelihood of coming in contact with disease-transmitting insects, as well. The best strategy is to avoid areas that attract them – so stay away from any sort of stagnant warm water, ranging from puddles to dog bowls. It may also be a good idea to avoid garbage cans, compost piles and flowers beds.

Dressing in long pants and sleeves, as well as heavy-duty socks and sturdy shoes, can also protect us from biting insects.

And while it's not a prevention method, it is important to examine your child's skin after he or she has spent a day playing outside. Look for any raised red marks and be especially vigilant for ticks that might hide under skin folds or shaggy summer haircuts.

After such an intense winter, I think we were all hoping that the mosquito – which I've heard referred to as "Arkansas' state bird" – would take a hiatus this summer. But it looks like they're here to stay until that next freeze. Let's do our best to keep our kids free of them until then.

Here's another tip: Be sure to download the new MyACH iPhone app, free from Arkansas Children's Hospital in the App Store. Everything a busy parent needs – from a health library to storage for your child's health info, insurance, medications and more.

Sam Smith, MD, is surgeon in chief at Arkansas Children's Hospital and a professor of Surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He writes a column each week covering a variety of kids' medical concerns. If you have a topic you'd like him to consider addressing, email

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