Dengue or DEET – Pick a Poison

Most people worry only about what clothes to take when packing for a vacation.  I am worrying about protecting us from dengue fever.

This was just a passing thought for my upcoming trip to Easter Island where they had a breakout of a “mild” strain of dengue fever a few years ago.  I didn’t really thing it was something I should spend too much time worrying about since it hasn’t been a recent problem.

But then I read a travel blogger’s post that describes how horrible an experience it is.  This guy had traveled all over South America including the Amazon and had the extreme misfortune of contracting not just dengue fever but malaria AT THE SAME TIME!


When I commented on his post telling him that he convinced me not only to pack bug repellent, but to USE it, I receive a comment back for someone else suggesting I look into natural repellents.  My reply that I will look into it unleashes the dengue survivors who advise me to buy nothing less than something with the evil ingredient DEET.

This is how I ended up in the aisle of Rite-Aid pondering what kind of chemicals I am willing to put directly on my skin to prevent mosquitos from injecting me with this delusion-inducing fever.  And of course there is the added complication of what’s available in a size of 3 ounces or less to satisfy the TSA.

I narrow my choices down to a “natural” spray without DEET and wipes with DEET.

But the horrific warnings on the DEET box freak me out.  They give the usual warnings about keeping it from getting near my eyes and what to do if I accidentally swallow it.

Planning on being on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with the closest real hospital a four-hour flight away, I particularly like this warning, “If you suspect a reaction to this product, discontinue use, wash treated skin and call your local poison control center.”

My favorite though is: “Do not use under clothing.  Will not damage cotton, wool or nylon.  DO NOT APPLY ON OR NEAR acetate, rayon, spandex, or other synthetics (other than nylon), furniture, plastics, leather, watch crystals and painted or varnished surfaces including automobiles.”  Yikes!

There goes the cute shirt I just bought – it’s made in China out of something called viscose, pretty much a more chemical sounding name for rayon.  I wonder if the DEET will disintegrate the fabric on contact or just melt it into my skin.  And what will happen to my bathing suit?

In the end I ask the patriarchal pharmacist what he would use.  Hands down, no contest, he says he would go for the DEET.  It’s proven effective, so DEET it is.  There’s a 3-ounce spray bottle or the wipes.  I decide that the wipes will be easier to pack.

I’m hoping that once we land, I will find that they are unnecessary because between the sunscreen and the bug repellent, I’m going to be a walking chemical farm.  I might just repel myself.

About Journeys By Jill

I have spent most of my adult life working in and around TV, film & radio production. As an avid traveler, I have a goal to visit at least 100 countries using the Century Traveler's Club Country List. At the moment, I have 54 to go. My favorite form of travel is to get off the beaten path and discover weird & wonderful attractions. Basically, I wing it. I'd love for you to come along for the ride.
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3 Responses to Dengue or DEET – Pick a Poison

  1. Jill: I work for the DEET Education Program, Washington, DC. I can readily understand your concerns about the labeling on repellents. Perhaps it will reassure you to know that in 2003 the Am. Academy of Pediatrics reviewed all of the information on DEET-based products–both published and unpublished–and revised its recommendations to be more relaxed. The new suggestion is that you can use a DEET-based product on children as young as two MONTHS of age in concentrations up to 30%. In its travel advisories, this organization states you can use even higher amounts if there are serious endemic diseases circulating in the mosquito population (malaria, dengue, yellow fever) and the child needs protection for longer periods of time. The wipes you have with you are probably 25% and will provide protection 4-5 hours depending on how much you perspire. The most commonly reported adverse event is stinging when the products get in your eyes. If you realize the wipes and most other formulations contain lots of alcohol, that certainly helps explain the stinging. The resolution of the stinging is almost immediate if you splash your eyes with cold water. If you are using repellent and sunscreen, apply the sunscreen first. Allow it to absorb into your skin. THEN apply repellent. Reapply sunscreen often. Use more repellent when the bugs start biting you again. Mosquitoes can find a spot the size of a dime, so don’t forget to smooth the repellent all over your exposed skin and if the mosquitoes can bite through your clothing, put it on underneath your clothing. As for fabric damage, rayon products are affected. Test all others in an inconspicuous spot if you are unsure of the fabric. We have loads of science-based information on DEET (along with other repellents) and will happily answer more questions and address concerns. Reach us at

  2. Hi Judi,

    Thanks for your input. For transparency’s sake, a tiny bit of research shows that you are the president of a North Carolina and Pennsylvania PR firm whose “Clients include pharma, chemical, heavy industry, and consumer-product companies” and an “Emphasis on grassroots issues, crisis management” so you are being paid to respond. I assume the DEET Education Program is one of your clients.

    My concern is that the information you provided directly goes against the warnings on the package that state: “Do not use under clothing.”

    Even more disconcerting is the warning: “If in eyes: Hold eye open and rinse slowly and gently with water for 15-20 minutes. Remove contact lenses, if present, after the first 5 minutes, then continue rinsing eye. Call a poison control center for treatment advice.”

    Clearly the warning is a lot more serious than “splash your eyes with cold water” for “immediate relief.” I would never want to put my readers in any danger by telling them that they should disregard warnings on the package.

    One bit of information I do appreciate is you answering the question of whether to put the sunscreen or the bug repellent on first.

    Of course when I return from this trip, I’ll be sure to let everyone know how things went, so stay tuned.

  3. Pingback: Mercy? – Memoirs of a Camp Nurse

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