Before you head outside this summer, even if it’s just to your own backyard, there are some things to know about the creepy crawlies you may encounter. Between 2004 and 2016, illnesses from ticks, mosquitoes and fleas bites—also known as vector-borne illnesses—have tripled in the United States, according to a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Tick-borne illnesses alone doubled during that time. In the 13-year period, more than 640,000 cases of vector-borne illnesses were reported—a 250 percent increase—although the real numbers are likely higher, since many of these infections go unreported. In addition, nine new germs spread by mosquito and tick bites were identified, including chikungunya and Heartland virus.
Some bites cause minor irritation, like small, itchy bumps. Others are more than a warm weather nuisance, spreading viruses, bacteria and parasites like West Nile, Zika, dengue and Lyme disease. Vector-borne illnesses account for more than 700,000 annual deaths around the world, according to World Health Organization, so preventing the spread is vital.
Protect yourself this summer
The CDC report suggests the rate of tick-borne illness is increasing and mosquito-borne diseases from other parts of the world continue to make their way to the US. Travelers can be infected while visiting another country and bring the illnesses home with them, which is primarily how viruses like Zika spread in the US.
Since diseases from mosquito, tick and flea bites are major causes of illness and death worldwide, the CDC recommends that state and local health agencies should take more action towards becoming better prepared for outbreaks. Their suggestions include implementing programs designed to test ticks and mosquitoes and track the spread of disease.
Health agencies are also encouraged to educate the public about ways to prevent bites. Start protecting yourself now by trying these tips to help stave off insect bites.
- Wear insect repellent. Choose a repellent with at least 20 percent DEET. Repellents registered with the Environmental Protection Agency are safe and effective, even for pregnant and breastfeeding women. This tool can help determine the right one for you.
- Know how to apply. During the summer, sunscreen and bug spray are often applied together. If using both, put on sunscreen first, wait until it has dried, and then apply insect repellent. Mosquitoes can bite though some clothing, so always spray on top of your clothes and never under them. Bug spray with DEET won’t damage cotton, wool or nylon, but you shouldn’t apply to spandex, rayon and other synthetic materials. Finally avoid spraying insect repellent directly into your face, instead spray into your hand and rub it into your face, neck and head. When applying it to children, spray into your hand first before applying anywhere on the body.
- Wear protective clothing. Cover skin with clothing like pants, long-sleeve tops, socks and closed shoes, especially when venturing into densely-wooded areas. Wearing permethrin-treated clothing and gear adds another layer of protection against bug bites.
- Keep bugs out of your home. Make sure window screens are free of holes or gaps. If you can, use air conditioning instead of keeping windows open. If air conditioning is not an option or you are sleeping outdoors, cover your sleeping area with a mosquito bed net.
- Protect your pets too. Talk with your veterinarian about flea and tick repellents for your pet. Check pets for ticks daily, especially if they go outside.
- Stay Informed. Check the CDC website regularly for outbreaks and travel warnings.
Spot the signs of vector-borne illness
Not all bug bites are preventable, even with the proper precautions, so knowing the signs of common vector-borne illness is important.
- Lyme disease: Early signs of this tick-borne illness include headache, fatigue and muscle and joint aches. Affected people may also experience a red, bullseye-shaped rash at the bite site. Left untreated, Lyme disease can lead to facial paralysis and arthritis, especially in large joints like the knee.
- West Nile virus: Most people, about 80 percent of those with the virus, will not experience any symptoms. Although uncommon, some symptoms include fever, head and body ache, rash, vomiting and diarrhea. In more serious cases, about one in every 150 people will experience brain or spinal cord swelling characterized by disorientation, neck stiffness, vision loss, paralysis or convulsions.
- Dengue: Dengue is a tropical virus that’s making its way into the US through places like Florida and Texas. This illness is diagnosed when a high fever and at least two other symptoms, including headache, joint pain, rash or severe eye pain, are present. If these symptoms are accompanied by difficulty breathing, vomiting blood and severe abdominal pain, seek immediate medical attention.
- Zika: Most cases of the virus are symptomless, but some may experience mild discomfort, like fever, rash, headache or muscle and joint pain that last for several days to a week. Many with the condition don't even realize they have it, but if you experience these symptoms and live in or have traveled to an affected area, see your doctor. This is especially crucial for pregnant women. Zika can be passed to a fetus, causing severe brain birth defects, including microcephaly.
Not everyone has the same symptoms, and some people experience none at all. If you have recently been bitten and begin to feel ill, it's best to get a doctor’s opinion.
Disclaimer: Content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.