Hiking, camping, and yard work season is here. Unfortunately, flying, creeping, crawling, biting bugs are part of the great outdoors. Mosquitoes, ticks, and spiders can be icky, but a little education and a few precautions can reduce both fear and aggravation because getting outside is important.
Lyme disease, transmitted by the deer tick a.k.a. black-legged tick, is real and can produce serious, long-lasting, and debilitating illness. However, it’s important to keep in perspective that only a small percentage of deer ticks are infected, and it takes a number of hours of attachment/feeding for the tick to transmit the bacteria. Also tick populations rise and fall at different times.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says, “Primarily risks are from mid-May through mid-July when the smaller nymph stage of the deer tick is feeding. Risk is present, but lower, in early spring and again in the fall (late September-October) when the adult stage of the deer tick is active.” Their website provides concise tips for preventing deer tick bites (including staying in the center of trails while hiking), removing ticks if they attach, recognizing Lyme disease signs and symptoms, and explaining treatment if infected.
As data tables from the Centers for Disease Control, spanning the years 2005-2015 show, Lyme disease rates also vary considerably by state/locality. Though trending changes, the Northeastern states and Wisconsin have traditionally seen significantly higher rates of infection.
And yes, other ticks transmit other diseases, but again, not always nor automatically. Laura Sanders, writing for Science News, in an article titled, “Five Reasons to Not Totally Panic About Ticks and Lyme Disease,” recounts finding a tiny tick attached to her baby’s cheek, thinking at first it was a scab from a scratch. It turned out to be a bacteria-free lone star tick. Sanders says, “To figure out which kind of tick bit you or your loved one, you can look at pictures on the CDC’s website, or send the tick to an insect identification lab,” adding that “We snapped an iPhone pic of Baby S’s tick and e-mailed it to the USDA, which identifies ticks for free.”
Precautions include wearing long sleeves and pants, wearing light-colored clothing, and doing “tick checks” after coming inside, including scalp, armpits, and other good hiding spots. If you spot an attached tick, the CDC provides directions for removal and then cleaning the area. Though they also suggest ways to dispose of ticks, other sources recommend saving it in a plastic bag for testing and marking with name, date, county, and how long it was attached. The University of Rhode Island sponsors the TickEncounter Resource Center, with info on sending ticks for testing. Google your state for similar resources.
The media produces plenty of bug buzz, jumping back and forth between ticks and mosquitoes. The latter can indeed carry and transmit a range of diseases, and a few people are allergic to their bites, but more often mosquitoes, like ticks, are simply an annoyance. Elizabeth Heubeck, writing for WebMD in a post titled, “Are You a Mosquito Magnet?” quotes Jerry Butler, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Florida, who says, "One in 10 people are highly attractive to mosquitoes." Genetics and blood chemistry are part of the draw, but carbon dioxide emission is another factor. The article notes that “Larger people tend to give off more carbon dioxide, which is why mosquitoes typically prefer munching on adults to small children,” elaborating that pregnant women are also at increased risk, as they produce a greater-than-normal amount of exhaled carbon dioxide.”
Movement and heat, according to the same article, also attract mosquitoes, so sipping iced tea on a deck is less of a “come hither” than playing volleyball. The same insect repellents that work for ticks are good all-around repellents, and around home, removing sources of standing water can help reduce mosquito breeding.
Routine application of insect repellent, particularly one with DEET or Picaridin (long used in Europe,) with lower concentrations of both chemicals recommended for kids, can help. (Sources often suggest parents apply these repellents first to their own hands and then onto kids.) Lemon eucalyptus oil is another option, but despite being more “natural,” multiple sources suggest not using it on kids under 3 due to lack of testing.
As for 8-legged critters, although about one-third of people have arachnophobia or fear of spiders, most spiders in the U.S. are pretty harmless and are even our “friends” in terms of eating mosquitos. To help ensure your home does not become an all-you-can-eat, 24/7 buffet for spiders, Midwest Exterminating, based in Lock Port, IL, offers an interesting tip for spider reduction: “Turning off exterior lights on buildings that remain on at night will have a huge impact on the number of spiders found in and around a structure. These lights attract large numbers of insects which the spiders are attracted to for food.”
Be smart and take precautions, but don’t let fear of bugs keep your family trapped indoors.