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Prevention of arthropod and insect bites: Repellents and other measures

Nancy L Breisch, PhD
Section Editor
David B Golden, MD
Deputy Editor
Anna M Feldweg, MD


The approach to protection against arthropod bites is influenced by the level of protection that is needed in a specific situation. For example, a combination of chemically-treated gear and clothing and a strong chemical repellent may be necessary in areas with high concentrations of disease-carrying arthropods (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Protection against mosquitoes, ticks, and other arthropods). In contrast, milder repellents may be sufficient for preventing nuisance bites in areas with low levels of disease vectors. The phylum Arthropoda includes both insects and arachnids, although the terms "arthropod" and "insect" are used interchangeably in this topic review.

Repellents are variably useful in deterring mosquitoes, biting flies, fleas, midges, chiggers, and ticks.

Repellents are not effective against stinging insects, such as Hymenoptera species (yellow jackets, wasps, bees, hornets, imported fire ants, and harvester ants) or against spiders. Unlike blood-sucking arthropods, stinging insects and spiders do not seek out humans to feed. Rather, they sting/bite humans reflexively in self-defense or to defend the nest (some Hymenoptera) or egg sacs (some spiders), and it is not possible to chemically deter these extreme behaviors short of using an insecticide.

The effectiveness and safety of the leading repellents and the use of permethrin will be discussed here. Additional measures to prevent mosquito-borne illness in tropical areas are presented separately. (See "Prevention of malaria infection in travelers", section on 'Mosquito bite prevention'.)


Among repellents for which a mechanism of action has been described, some act as agonists at olfactory receptors, binding the receptors and blocking recognition of suitable prey. Others antagonize olfactory receptors and actively reverse a normally attractive scent into a deterring scent. Due to highly divergent receptors, the same compound may act as an agonist in one species and an antagonist in another [1,2].

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Nov 17, 2016.
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