Bug-borne illnesses like Lyme disease and West Nile virus may not be the infectious diseases that are top of mind right now as we battle the COVID-19 pandemic.
But they haven’t gone away. There were 557 cases of West Nile virus during 2020, and the yearly tallies have frequently topped 2,000 in the last decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while the CDC says about 35,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease are reported to the agency each year, evidence suggests that the real numbers of people treated for it annually may be upward of 450,000.
“The most important thing is to avoid getting bitten in the first place,” says Rebecca Eisen, PhD, a research biologist with the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. “Fortunately, there are really simple things you can do to protect yourself and your family.”
Using insect repellent is obviously key, but effective bug avoidance requires you to take other precautions. Below is a list of recommendations from CR’s experts and testing, and from the CDC, on how to have a safe summer.
Your Deck and Yard
Mosquitoes: According to the CDC, the most important thing you can do to keep mosquitoes out of your yard is to eliminate their preferred breeding grounds. Keep your gutters clean and your birdbaths, old tires, wheelbarrows, and swimming pool covers free of standing water. Clear away ivy and decaying leaves, too.
As far as your deck or patio is concerned, some repellent products work much better than others. When our testers tried out two area repellents—citronella candles and a battery-powered diffuser that blows out geraniol—we found they were ineffective at keeping mosquitoes away. An oscillating pedestal fan did much better. When set on high, it cut mosquito landings by 45 to 65 percent for the people sitting close to it.
Mosquito traps that use fans, electric grids, or adhesive pads to capture and kill mosquitoes are also somewhat effective. (They often attract mosquitoes, and they kill the ones that come into contact with them.) But the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA) says it’s unclear whether that translates into a noticeable reduction in the overall mosquito population because new mosquitoes can move in fairly quickly to fill the void.
You might also try using LED or yellow lightbulbs on your porch and around your house.
Our safety experts warn against using yard foggers or misters that spray insecticide. “You might inhale the chemicals, some of which have been linked to serious health problems, including endocrine disruption and neurological effects,” says Michael Hansen, PhD, Consumer Reports’ senior scientist.
Ticks: They like tall grass and lots of shade. So keep your lawn mowed, remove leaves and other debris, and try to let as much sun into your yard as possible. Consider putting up a fence around your property to keep out deer and other large animals that can carry ticks. And don’t forget to check your pets for ticks after they have been romping outside.
Mosquitoes: Wear long sleeves, long pants, socks, and closed-toe shoes, especially when you’re out for longer stretches of time. Avoid tight clothes (mosquitoes can bite through them), dark colors, and perfume or aftershave (both attract mosquitoes). Apply a good repellent to exposed skin and to your clothes (but never under them).
Ticks: When walking through wooded or grassy areas in the summer, wear the same clothes that ward off mosquitoes. Light-colored clothes are better for ticks, however, because they make the bugs easier to spot if they're crawling on you. Tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks. Showering soon after being outside in a tick-y area is associated with a reduced risk of acquiring tick-borne disease, as is performing a tick check. So jump in the shower after you hike or get done with yardwork, and take the opportunity to inspect your skin for bites. Use tweezers to gently remove any attached ticks. For extra protection, toss your clothes into a clothes dryer on high heat to kill ticks that might be crawling around.
The CDC also recommends wearing clothing treated with the insecticide permethrin or treating your own clothes with permethrin spray. Scientists have found that the treated cloth can incapacitate ticks and even kill them, making them less likely to bite you.
What About Stinging Insects?
“For the most part, bees and wasps will leave you alone if you leave them alone,” says Stanton Cope, PhD, a former Navy entomologist and former AMCA president.
Nests in your yard should be removed only if they're in high-traffic areas, Cope says. If you can, wait until the fall or winter, when the nests are abandoned. If you need to remove them sooner, do it early in the spring, and early or late in the day when the insects are less active. Insecticide powders or sprays might be necessary, but follow directions and keep pets and children away. Always wear head-to-toe protective clothing, and never remove nests if it requires standing on a ladder; call a professional instead.
The insects are drawn to strong scents. So to make yourself less attractive to bees and wasps, avoid using perfumed soaps, shampoos, and deodorants if you have lots of insects in your yard or you’re headed to a picnic. And because sweat can agitate bees, consider washing up before heading out.
Check out a few of our top-rated insect repellents.
From the Tip Jar
On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports' experts offer host Jack Rico advice on making the most of sunscreen, the best natural light for taking photos, and which insect repellents to use.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include recent data on tick- and mosquito-borne infections.
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