The list of illnesses carried by summer's insect pests is daunting: encephalitis, West Nile virus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, malaria, dengue fever, Lyme disease. Although the likelihood of contracting any of these diseases from an insect bite is very small, it still makes sense to protect yourself. And the nuisance factor of ticks, mosquitoes, and fleas warrants finding ways to repel them, even if their potential as disease carriers is relatively remote.
Mosquitoes. Wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and socks outdoors. Use a repellant on exposed skin and on thin clothing, since mosquitoes can bite through it, following the insect repellant's label instructions carefully. Exclude mosquitoes from your home with tight-fitting screens on windows and doors. Minimize mosquito-breeding areas by removing all sources of standing water, including plant saucers. Dump birdbaths and pet water dishes and replace with fresh water at least twice weekly.
Ticks. Avoid known tick-infested areas. Understand their habits: Ticks make their way onto the edges of leaves and branches, then wait to hitch a ride on a passing host, so avoid brushing against vegetation. When hiking, stay to the middle of the path. Tuck your pant legs into your socks so that ticks cannot reach your skin. Keep lawns mowed, and remove debris and brush piles. Perform daily tick checks and, if you find an attached tick, remove it promptly. Inspect dogs and cats daily, too. Oral tick medications and tick collars can be helpful in managing ticks on pets.
Fleas. More nuisance than health threat, fleas bites can caust intense itching. Frequent vacuuming can dramatically reduce pest populations. Focus your attention on crevices and corners where fleas like to hide, and dispose of the bag outside immediately. Wash pet bedding in hot water at least weekly.
In the battle against pest insects, skip the bug lights. Though the electrical zaps may sound productive, the devices actually kill far more beneficial insects than pests.
Avoid homemade pest repellants that contain concentrated essential oils, especially pennyroyal, as these can cause serious side effects. An herbal infusion may be safe, but it's best to check with an experienced herbalist.
Many people want to avoid using repellants containing DEET. This is a matter of personal choice: The chemical is an effective repellant, but long-term use may pose risks. Always follow label directions carefully, especially when using the repellant on children.