Insect Repellents

Many parents worry about the safety of insect repellents. Poisonings from insect repellents are more likely to happen as a result of incorrect use rather than by accident.

NN Diethyl-Toluamide, commonly referred to as DEET, is an ingredient in many popular insect repellents. Products containing DEET come in lotion, liquid, spray and stick forms. Concentrations of DEET in these products can vary from 5 percent to 100 percent.

Poisoning from DEET

The most common way DEET causes poisonings is through the skin. Skin exposure to DEET can cause two types of reactions: local skin reactions and systemic reactions.

If your child swallows a product containing DEET, rinse out his mouth, have him drink water and contact his physician or the Poison Control Center at 1-888-222-1222.

Local skin reactions

These include rashes, irritation, a burning sensation and redness on the surface of the skin. These reactions usually occur with repeated DEET application and with the use of very concentrated formulas (more than 75 percent).

If this type of skin reaction occurs, stop using the insect repellent and wash the irritated area thoroughly with soap and water. Consult your child's physician if the discomfort persists.

Systemic reactions

These occur when DEET is absorbed from the surface of the skin into the body. If this happens, DEET can affect the nervous system and may produce confusion, drowsiness (feeling tired), muscle weakness, muscle spasms, seizures and coma.

Skin absorption may also cause stomach pains, nausea, vomiting and changes in blood pressure and heart rate. Small children are more susceptible to DEET's toxic effects.

Skin absorption is more likely to occur if you use highly concentrated formulas of DEET, if it is applied to broken or irritated skin, or with repeated applications. Covering the skin with clothing after applying DEET can also increase absorption and result in poisoning.

Poison prevention

Poisonings from DEET can be prevented by following the manufacturers' instructions and precautions on the product label. In addition, here are some do's and don'ts to remember when using DEET so you can have a safe, bug-free summer.

Do ...

  • Read the label carefully before use.
  • Use the lowest concentration possible (30 percent is as effective as stronger formulas).
  • Use DEET sparingly. A single application is effective for about four to eight hours.
  • Use DEET on intact, healthy skin.
  • Wear long sleeves and long pants to minimize the total amount of skin exposed to DEET.

Don't ...

  • Apply DEET repeatedly.
  • Apply to broken or abraded skin.
  • Continue use if skin irritation occurs.
  • Apply under clothing.
  • Use on children under 2 years of age.
  • Apply to children's hands as they can spread it to their mouths and eyes.

All insecticides contain potentially poisonous substances. However, the safest choice is a product containing pyrethrins. The side effects from exposure to pyrethins may be less dangerous than exposure to other commonly used insecticide ingredients.

Remember, even the "safer" alternatives are not completely harmless, and any exposure to these products should be taken seriously.

Next Steps
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