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Mosquitoes are an extremely annoying presence every summer, and this season is not going to be an exception. Recent rains create ideal conditions for this pest, so it makes sense to expect their numbers to be high. Mosquitoes are usually considered a nuisance pest, they bother you but do not necessarily hurt you. Well, they can hurt too, by transmitting diseases. Although mosquitoes routinely transmit different diseases in this region, people have centered their attention on one in particular, the West Nile Virus.

We are not going to discuss the disease in this column, but if you have questions about it you should contact the Illinois Department of Public Health. Here we will cover a few things about keeping mosquitoes away, safely, to reduce the risks associated with their bites.

Summer is the perfect time to be outside, right where these critters are, so I am not going to tell you to avoid those places. Some of the most attractive summer destinations in Illinois involve some form of standing water, and we know that mosquitoes need that for breeding. How can we enjoy those places and still reduce the chances of mosquito bites?

Well, the first thing to do is to keep as little exposed skin as possible. This is a great recommendation for summer, right? Let's move on to plan B, repellents. The active ingredient in most insect repellents is DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), which is effective against most arthropods, including mosquitoes and ticks.

DEET is intended for direct application on the skin, but exposure should be kept to a minimum. Different commercial formulations contain different concentrations of this chemical in a variety of forms (sprays, lotions, or liquids). Obviously, the stronger concentrations are going to be more effective, but at the same time you are applying more chemical on your skin, which could eventually have an adverse effect.

The first thing you should do is read the label carefully and make sure you are using the product in a safe manner. It is a good idea to wash it off as soon as you don't need the repellent any longer, especially if you are using a formulation with a high concentration of DEET. Never apply it over cuts or open wounds, and make sure that children get proper adult supervision when applying this repellent. Avoid applying this product on young children's hands, because they are very likely to put them in their mouths or eyes.

There are several botanical products, including essential oils and whole plants, and electronic devices which claim to repel mosquitoes and other nuisance pests. Many of them have not been scientifically proven. One exception is citronella oil, a botanical repellent extracted from the grasses Cymbopogon nardus and C. winterianus that has been used for more than 50 years to keep biting insects away. It is available in lotions, pellets and candles. It has shown little or no toxicity to humans. This is not the only effective botanical repellant, but is probably the most widely used.

Do not rely on a single method to keep mosquitoes and other biting insects away. A combination of the proper repellent and strategically positioned citronella candles can help you spend a nice evening without unsolicited company. Another helpful technique is to drain any source of stagnant water around the house. This will reduce mosquito breeding places. A little repellent and a lot of common sense will help you reduce mosquito bites, without giving up the outdoors.

Pablo A. Kalnay, Ph.D., Visiting Extension Educator, IPM, Springfield Extension Center, Springfield, IL 62704, (217)782-6515 or e-mail: kalayp@mail.aces.uiuc. edu.


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