Insect Repellents for Kids

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

WebMD Feature

June 26, 2000 -- DEET, the chemical found in most commercial insect repellents, works by confusing a bug's sense of smell, and it's considered the most effective tick repellent available. The National Institutes of Health recommends applying DEET repellents on any exposed skin before going outside.

While there have been concerns about the use of DEET on children, research shows it is safe when used properly. According to Mark S. Fradin, MD, a North Carolina dermatologist whose report on insect repellents appeared in the June 1998 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, only a few cases of severe reactions in adults and children have been reported in the decades since DEET has been on the market, though he says the chemical is potentially harmful in large amounts. DEET is absorbed into the body through the skin, and there are rare cases among all ages in which frequent and large exposures of the chemical have led to serious central nervous system problems, from confusion to seizures, or even death.

To be safe, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children use products with 10% DEET or less. (Many insect repellents contain much higher concentrations, particularly those labeled "extra-strength.") You should also follow these precautions:

  • Don't apply repellent in an enclosed area.
  • Avoid putting it on cuts or wounds.
  • Don't apply it close to the nose, mouth, or eyes, or to kids' hands if there is a chance they might wipe them on their face.
  • Wash children's skin with soap and water when they come back inside.
  • DEET may make sunscreens less effective, so don't let kids stay out in the sun too long.
  • Of course, any insect repellents must be kept out of reach of children; and DEET should never be used on children under the age of 2.

A small number of children may be especially sensitive to even small amounts of DEET. If you suspect that your child may be having a negative reaction -- for instance, if he or she has trouble breathing -- wash the area and get help from your doctor or a poison control center immediately.

Ben Kallen is senior writer for Men's Fitness magazine. He has written on health, nutrition, and psychology for Shape, Muscle & Fitness, Publishers Weekly, and Family PC.

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