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How to get rid of mosquitoes, and other tips for dealing with these pesky insects

Americans

After a long pandemic winter, the arrival of balmy weather and mass vaccinations has sent Americans flocking outdoors. Backyard barbecues are in full swing. Campgrounds are packed. Postponed vacations to tropical locales have been rebooked. But although the coronavirus pandemic may feel as though it’s easing, there’s another disease risk that experts are urging people not to forget about this summer: mosquitoes. “We just got through with a pandemic, but we have mosquito endemics every year,” said David Brown, technical adviser for the American Mosquito Control Association. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the mosquito “one of the world’s most deadly animals.” Aside from bites, which can leave unsightly, itchy red welts, more than 1 million people worldwide die of mosquito-borne diseases annually. West Nile virus is the No. 1 cause of mosquito-borne disease in the continental United States, and mosquitoes in some states and overseas territories also have been responsible for outbreaks of dengue, Zika and chikungunya, among others, according to the CDC. Warm temperatures combined with heavy rainfall and humidity create the ideal conditions for mosquitoes to thrive, experts said. And if more people are spending time in such environments without effective protection against the pesky insects, “we could have the perfect storm,” Brown said. Here’s what you need to know about mosquitoes, how to reduce your chances of getting bitten this summer and tips for properly treating bites that do happen. Why are some people mosquito magnets? If you think mosquitoes zero in on you, you’re probably not imagining it. “Mosquitoes do find certain people more attractive than others, and there are a variety of reasons for that, and most of them we cannot control, unfortunately,” said Eva Buckner, an assistant professor and medical entomology state extension specialist at the University of Florida. To understand why mosquitoes might be drawn to you, Buckner said, it helps to know what the female insects (the only ones that bite) need for their life cycle: places to lay their eggs, and sources for “blood meals” and nectar. Some species of mosquito prefer to get those blood meals from mammals, including humans — and the carbon dioxide that we release when we breathe is a “universally recognized attractant,” Brown said. So if you breathe more heavily than those around you or are exercising outdoors, you may be a target. The pests are also attracted to other bodily emissions, such as sweat and heat, he said, in addition to individual biochemistries. What you’re wearing could matter, too. Mosquitoes, in general, appear more attracted to darker-colored clothing, Buckner said. She added that floral scents also could be a draw, because the insects drink nectar for energy. But whether you’re a mosquito magnet or not, experts emphasized that it’s important to protect yourself from mosquito-borne illnesses, especially if the insects are circulating in your area. “You don’t want to roll the dice,” Brown said. How do I minimize the presence of mosquitoes? Mosquito eggs need water to hatch; once they’re in the right conditions, it’s only a matter of days before larvae emerge and grow into adults capable of flying and biting, said Brian Prendergast, mosquito control program manager at the Maryland Department of Agriculture. That’s why you’ll often see more mosquitoes not long after heavy rains. A critical step in mosquito prevention, therefore, is to make sure to remove or treat standing water around your home. Aedes aegypti, the yellow-fever mosquito, and Aedes albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito, both of which are found in the United States, tend to breed in water-filled containers and are “ferocious mammal biters,” Brown said. “If you’re not draining the pots and pans around your house or just any water container, you could be producing mosquitoes right there,” he said. “Once they emerge, you’re the ready host for them to come to you.” Other species of mosquitoes can fly distances of more than a mile, Brown said, which means a neglected bucket in your backyard could create a problem for your entire neighborhood. Experts recommend emptying containers of water at least once a week, and more often if you live in particularly warm climates. If you have a fountain or bird bath that can’t be emptied, experts said you should treat the water with a bacterial insecticide. Buckner suggested products containing Bti, a biological or naturally occurring bacterium found in soil that affects only the larvae of mosquitoes and other pests, such as black flies and fungus gnats, when used as directed. In addition to screens and netting, strategically placed fans can be effective against mosquitoes, because the insects are “relatively weak fliers,” Brown said. He noted, though, that fans are potentially “a double-edged sword,” because they could help spread the cues mosquitoes use to identify humans. Brown and other experts discouraged using bug zappers. “They’re rather indiscriminate,” he said. “They’re going to kill a lot of non-target organisms that aren’t mosquitoes.” How do I safely protect myself from mosquitoes? Although there are beliefs that eating garlic or vitamin B can help ward off mosquitoes, “those things do not work,” Buckner said. For protection, she and other experts recommend using an Environmental Protection Agency-registered repellent and minimizing skin exposure by wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, which can come treated with repellent. The “gold standard” of active ingredients in repellents is DEET, “because it has been used the longest and tested the most,” Buckner said. But DEET isn’t always the preferred or appropriate choice for everyone. If people have sensitive skin conditions, such as eczema, and have open cuts or sores, “DEET burns terribly, and that’s not fun,” said Danny Del Campo, a dermatologist at the Chicago Skin Clinic. Other effective EPA-registered repellents use different active ingredients, such as picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus. Brown encouraged people to use the EPA’s online search tool, which has details about registered repellents, including how long they protect wearers. He also urged users to follow the directions on products. “Those directions are put there to ensure the safety and efficacy that was demonstrated through the test when EPA did the registration.” Avoid using nonregistered products, some of which are marketed as organic or all-natural, experts said. If a repellent isn’t registered, “there’s no evidence that the stuff actually works, so you might not be protected when you think you are,” Prendergast said. Furthermore, the concentrations of essential oils in some “natural” products could be so high that they trigger allergic reactions, Buckner said. Before covering your skin with any repellent, try a “use test,” said Robert Brodell, a professor and chair of the dermatology department at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “Put a little bit on the inside of your wrist where the skin is thin, and if you don’t react to that in a day, then it’s unlikely when you put it on more broadly that you’re going to have a reaction.” Additionally, be mindful of when mosquitoes are generally most active, which is about two hours before or after sundown, Prendergast said. One exception is the Asian tiger mosquito, he said, which is active all day long. What should I do if I get bitten? Though mosquito bites are itchy, try to avoid scratching. “A lot of people tend to scratch quite a bit, and you can develop a superficial infection over the area,” said Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand, a double board-certified dermatologist in Dallas. Improperly treated bites could also be more likely to leave dark or light marks on the skin, dermatologists said. To minimize the urge to scratch, Houshmand suggested first washing the affected area with tepid water and gentle soap and then applying calamine lotion or an anti-itch cream, such as 1 percent hydrocortisone. Other products recommended by dermatologists contain pramoxine. Although some commercially available electronic gadgets use heat to ease reactions to bites, experts recommend applying something cold, such as ice or a topical cream or ointment that has been refrigerated, to help reduce redness and itchiness. Heat tends to open up blood vessels, which could lead to more inflammation, Brodell said. However you choose to tend to bites, Del Campo said, simplicity is key. “If it’s small, then treat it small.” This article was originally published by Allyson Chiu, washingtonpost.com.

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