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The question: Bug bites are common during this time of the year, but when my child gets bitten what should I be most concerned about and how can I best protect my child against insect bites?

The answer: Living in northern New Brunswick, I consider myself somewhat of an expert in mosquitoes and black flies. Anyone who has recently been to the woods knows that black fly season is upon us in full force.

For about three months a year, Canadians who venture outside our urban centres must deal with these voracious insects. At best, these biting insects are a nuisance that can turn an otherwise happy outing into a frenzy of swatting and scratching. For children, insect bites can be very itchy and uncomfortable, disrupting sleeping habits and affecting demeanour.

Some children can be quite sensitive to the bites, leading to marked swelling and discolouration. For other youngsters, the constant scratching can lead to skin infections that can be potentially dangerous and may require treatment with antibiotics. Although rare, these insects can transmit serious infections including West Nile Virus from mosquitoes and Lyme disease from tick bites. In most areas of the country, May and June are the prime time for black flies, while June and July are peak season for mosquitoes. Tick bites can occur any time from early spring to late fall. Here are some things to consider in order to minimize the impact of these insects.

  • Bite prevention: Black flies and mosquitoes are most active at dawn and dusk. Parents of children prone to insect bites may want to keep their infants indoors or in a screened tent during these times. If your children will be outdoors, keep the amount of exposed skin to a minimum using socks, shoes, and light-coloured clothing. Long-sleeved cotton shirts and pants that have elastics at the wrists and ankles are ideal. If you live in an area where insects are prevalent, consider buying protective clothing such as a mesh bug jacket or a bug hat with netting that covers the head and neck. When my children were toddlers, my wife and I would zip them into a one-piece mesh jump suit that covered their entire body, head to toe, before going for an evening stroll or to the park.
  • DEET is the word: As much as I believe in minimizing kid’s exposure to chemical products, I have yet to find a bug repellent as effective as Diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET). I have been repeatedly disappointed with citronella and other “natural” skin care products over years and have yet to find a product that protects as well as DEET. DEET is endorsed by Health Canada and offers protection from mosquitoes, black flies, and ticks. It is important to know the concentration of DEET in the bug spray you are using. For infants and children between the ages of 6 months and 12 years, Health Canada recommends using repellants containing up to 10 per cent DEET. For teens and adults, the maximum recommended concentration is 30 per cent DEET. Be aware, that some “kids” and “family” bug repellents have very low DEET levels (less than 5 per cent) and may not always be adequate if insects are plentiful.
  • Bite treatment: Care of your child’s bug bites will vary depending on the number and severity of the bites. Keeping the skin clean and keeping fingernails short will help to prevent infection from scratching. Simple measures such as cool baths and applying calamine lotion can be soothing. Some kids find dabbing lesions with a commercial “after bite” product helpful. Children with more extensive bites may benefit from a dose of diphenhydramine (Benadryl), especially at bedtime to reduce the itching.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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