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Harvard Medical School
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General Medical Questions
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Question : In articles on Lyme disease prevention, it’s recommended to use sprays containing DEET. I read that insecticides such as DEET have been linked to Alzheimer's disease. So is it wise to use DEET?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.

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May 29, 2014
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You are right to wonder about the safety of DEET (or any insect repellent). DEET is a powerful chemical. And there are studies suggesting possible links to Parkinson’s disease and other neurologic conditions. (Though I could find little about a link to Alzheimer’s disease).  

The enzyme acetylcholinesterase plays a key role in regulating chemical messengers in the brain. DEET interrupts this function.  Animals exposed to high levels of DEET develop a number of health problems, including disturbances of the nervous system.

But extensive safety studies have led experts to this conclusion: when used as instructed, occasional, short-term exposure to DEET to repel the ticks that carry Lyme disease poses no significant health threat. 

For example, there was a 2010 study of hundreds of reports of possible health problems linked to DEET. The authors concluded that “the risk of serious neurological events following the use of DEET repellents is quite low.” 

Keep in mind that DEET is not an insecticide. It does not kill insects – it repels them. That’s an important distinction. There are more compelling studies linking insecticides and pesticides to the risk of serious neurologic disease (such as Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease) than there are for DEET.

If you are still concerned about the risks of DEET, you can take other precautions to avoid Lyme disease.   

Here are some tips:

  • Avoid places where you are likely to come into contact with ticks, such as high grass and brush.
  • Wear long sleeves and long pants with the cuffs tucked into your socks.
  • Carefully examine your skin for ticks when you return from the outdoors.
  • If you see a tick, remove it immediately. If the tick is swollen and you are in a location where Lyme disease is common, see your doctor for treatment. Taking antibiotics soon after a tick bite can prevent Lyme disease.

It’s possible that applying DEET to clothing is safer than applying it to the skin. But that hasn’t been proven. And applying it only to the clothes may be less effective.

The decision to use or avoid DEET involves balancing its risks (which appear to be small) with the risk of developing Lyme disease (which may also be small if you take other precautions). 

There are 30,000 cases of Lyme disease reported each year. And the risk of DEET seems low. Considering this, many people go with the experts’ recommendations to use DEET-containing insect repellents.    

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