Choosing the Right Insect Protection

by Buck Tilton
As appeared in the pages of Camping Life magazine.

In a galaxy here and now, the camper's war against the bugs continues, as it has for eons, ever since something sort of human swatted something mosquito-like. Bugs bite with their front parts or sting with their back parts, and sometimes it itches, sometimes it hurts and sometimes we get sick later. At all times we need to be armed - with knowledge and weapons - to put up the good fight. We'll never completely vanquish the dark hordes, but we can do our very best to win a few battles.

Only the female mosquito bites and sucks, with needle-sharp mouthparts, needing blood to produce her eggs. She feeds once every three to four days, ingesting up to her body weight at each meal. With each bite, she squirts in her saliva, filled with anticoagulants and digestive enzymes, and those proteins cause the itchy bump that rises within 24 hours on our skin. She may also squirt in West Nile virus (WNV) germs. Already this year (as of April 2008), humans have been diagnosed with WNV in Arizona, Tennessee, and Mississippi. (For the curious, male mosquitoes are devout vegetarians.)

You can fight the itch with topical anti-itch products, such as Sting-Eze. If the product contains benzocaine, expect some pain relief as well. Oral anti-histamines like Benadryl will also reduce the itch. Steroid creams have little to no effect. Bites scratched open, especially on kids, should be monitored for the increasing redness, swelling and pain that indicate infection. And those bites should be washed well and bandaged (and watched even closer).

You can prevent many 'skeeter bites. Clothing thick enough or tightly woven enough keeps her mouthparts from reaching our skin - and if the sleeves and pants are long, so much the better. She shows a preference for dark colored clothing, so go light with, say khaki. You can use an insect repellent, and be sure the mosquito netting in tents remains in good repair. She is most active at dawn and dusk - good times to be behind netting. And try to avoid mosquito prone areas: standing water, dense vegetation and places where people say, "wow there sure are a lot of mosquitoes over there."

When ticks feed, they may leave enough germs behind to make us sick. Worldwide, nothing non-human passes disease more often to humans than mosquitoes. Ticks are in second place, except in the United States, where they spread diseases more often than mosquitoes. And ticks transmit a greater variety of illnesses. Searching a host for hours before choosing a spot to settle down and eat is a common practice. With specialized pincer-like organs, the tick digs a small, painless wound in the host to which it firmly attaches. It feeds for an average of two to five days, and sometimes longer than five days, depending on the species. Just because it's feeding when we discover one, however, doesn't mean enough germs to cause disease have been passed.

Here's the really important part: All ticks should be removed as soon as they are found. Don't touch the tick with bare hands, but, if possible, put it in a bottle or some such container, saving it for lab tests in case of later illness. After removal, the wound should then be cleaned with soap and water or a disinfectant and an adhesive bandage applied. Tweezers should be cleaned after use.

An article in the March issue of the Journal of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine revealed that 20 percent of tick attachment sites on humans are places where the biter (tick) cannot be seen by the bitten (you). The sites, in order of preference by ticks, were lower limbs, the lower abdomen and genital area, the back at chest level and the buttocks. The message: During tick season, the twice-a-day tick check we need to perform will require a mirror or someone we know well.

Wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, with light colors more useful, allows us the chance to see a tick before it reaches our skin. Tucking long pants into high socks gives us even more protection. And we should try to avoid contact with tall grass and low bushes where they like to hide and wait.

Some are so small they are barely visible to the naked eye, a chigger (red bug) is a relative of the tick. They collect during the larval stage of life (when they have only six legs, and the only stage they need a host), often in swarms, often near the ground on vegetation, waiting for a host. They prefer, on humans, a place where our clothing fits snugly or the skin is tender - like ankles, waistlines and armpits. Once finding a suitable spot, they break the skin with their mouthparts, release saliva that liquefies epidermal cells, and feed, in their ideal world, for two to three days by sucking up the liquefied tissue. They don't, despite contrary opinions, burrow under skin, and neither do they feast on blood.

We may derive some satisfaction knowing chiggers find little nutrition due to our immune system response, and they seldom finish a meal on us, typically dying in a few hours if not scratched off. Unfortunately for us, the proteins they leave behind cause itching of indescribable ferocity - for a week, maybe up to two - that starts usually somewhere between four and eight hours after they start eating. Other than avoiding chigger country, insect repellents that keep mosquitoes off will usually work on these beasties as well. We also can, and should, as soon as possible after realizing we have them on us, take a bath and scrub the chiggers off. Once we start itching, the use of topical anti-itch ointments provide some relief. Caladryl and hydrocortisone products working as well as any.

Fire Ants
From the coast across to Texas, a small, non-indigenous, reddishbrown-to-black ant has spread like kudzu since it first appeared in Alabama in the 1920s. Unsuspecting, you can step on a mound and find your legs covered in hundreds of ants within 30 seconds. Unlike most ants, fire ants attack instead of running away.

Sharp mandibles attach the ants to skin, and the battle begins. While holding on, the ants jab in rear-end stingers, similar to bees. They release venom, pull the stinger out, twist and jab again. They will keep jabbing until they are removed. If you don't swat them and get them off your skin, they will sting a ring of painfully burning wounds, like fire. Over the next few hours, swelling develops and clear fluid filled bumps appear. Bumps can itch for a week.

Most people get over fire ant stings, but, as with bees, some folks have a serious allergic reaction, and deaths may run as high as 30 humans per year.

If attacked by a hoard of fire ants, running away and swatting vigorously are recommended. Later the application of cold may ease the pain - for a while. No medications have proven effective in either relieving the symptoms or preventing the fluid-filled bumps. In this fight, watching where you step - never a bad idea in any situation - prevents the problem.

Best Protection
As with so many things in life, insect bite and sting avoidance is good preventative medicine. Be aware of your surroundings at all times - where you step and stand, pitch your tent, place your chair and start your fire. In addition, be sure that your camp kit is well stocked with insect repellents that work. Learn how and when to properly apply them. Some after-bite treatments are good to have around, too. If you're properly equipped for battle, you'll have a better chance of surviving the fight against the bite.

Insect Repellents That Work

DEET (N, N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide):
Continuing studies show it to be the best. The New England Journal of Medicine (2002) reported a concentration of 23.8% DEET kept bugs away completely for about five hours. People occasionally react negatively to DEET on their skin. Very rarely is the reaction serious.

A chemical alternative to DEET that works well but not as long as DEET. Unlike DEET, no negative reactions are known.

Lemon Eucalyptus Oil:
Products with this oil offer complete protection for about two hours. And it smells kind of nice.

Soybean Oil:
Products with this oil keep bugs off for about an hour and a half.

This is a potent insect neurotoxin synthesized, and proven safe, for human use. Apply it to clothing, not to skin, and bugs are killed after contact.

Nothing else, suggest many experts, is worth taking the time to smear on, swallow, or hang near your campsite - it just plain doesn't work. Although, a smoky fire has worked well for us, bug-wise that is. With all repellents follow the directions on the label.