Since I started off this week addressing an ailment (the common cold) that is currently impacting our household, I thought I would end the week addressing another of our typical yet bothersome ailments, bug bites.
There are probably few spots on planet Earth where the climate is hospitable to humans and insects don’t live or don’t bite people. (If anyone knows of such a place, please let me know!) Here in the mid-Atlantic, our hot, humid summers bring a host of unwelcome biting insects. With our recent rains and warmer weather, the bugs are hatched and all over the place. Patio season here in Virginia lasts just about 3 weeks in the early spring and maybe another 3 weeks in late fall when most of the bugs are dead. The rest of the summer we spend swatting, spraying and scratching to avoid our infestations.
The bugginess of an east coast summer is a major inconvenience. When we traveled west last summer, we had to laugh when our families complained about mosquitos at night. “Where?” we had to ask. The mosquitos are so thick here in the east that if you go outside in the summer at any time of the day or night without bug repellant on, you are guaranteed to be bitten.
Mosquitos and ticks are some of the most troublesome insects due to their blood-drawing tendencies and their ability to spread disease. Below are a few key facts to remember about these insects and a few ideas to keep them at bay.
According to the Bugman, mosquitos primarily feed on the nectar from flowers and only the female mosquito bites people. The female is seeking protein from our blood to help develop her eggs. The bites can take up to two days to appear and typically cause extremely itchy pink or red bumps.
Yummy People Beware
Certain people are more delicious to the mosquito than others. I have the misfortune of being one of those “yummy” people. When I am outside with my husband and children, the mosquitos seem to come right for me. I will end up with dozens of bites while everyone else gets one or two. When I was outside the other day wearing long pants and a long shirt, every area of my body that was not covered by clothing was bitten but my children were untouched. The Mayo Clinic says mosquitos tend to prefer: men, people with type O blood, overweight people, and people who generate a lot of body heat, such as those wearing dark colors.
Dangers of Mosquitos
In the United States, West Nile Virus is the most common illness transmitted by mosquitos. Most people infected with West Nile Virus don’t develop any signs or symptoms and the virus doesn’t seem to be a big problem. A few people, particularly older adults and those with compromised immune systems, may develop severe reactions to the virus, including headaches requiring hospitalization. In other parts of the world, malaria and dengue fever are the most feared mosquito illnesses. Rarely, some people have a severe allergic reaction to mosquito bites requiring urgent medical attention.
Why We Shouldn’t Scratch
|The itchiness of a mosquito bite is nearly unbearable. If you can avoid scratching, you have more willpower than I do! Scratching can apparently lead to skin infections. To ease the itchiness, the Mayo Clinic recommends ice, calamine lotion, a hydrocortisone cream, or a paste made with water and meat tenderizer!|
Unlike mosquitos, ticks only feed on the blood of other animals, primarily mammals (especially the white-tailed deer) and birds. Ticks primarily live in wooded areas, near sources of water where animals come to drink and in meadows. Once a tick has a full meal, it typically drops off its host and waits in the tall grasses for its next victim to come along.
Dangers of Ticks
While most ticks do not transmit disease, there are at least 10 serious diseases known to be transmitted by ticks in the United States. I was interested to learn that the type of tick that bites you determines what type of diseases you are at risk for. Not all ticks carry the risk of Lyme disease, which is probably the disease we have heard the most about. Here on the east coast the two main types of ticks are “dog ticks” and “deer ticks.” Dog ticks have primarily plain brown bodies. Deer ticks also have brown bodies but are distinguished by their black legs.
Because this is an issue that has caused enormous concern for our family in the past (although fortunately no tick-borne diseases), below is my quick visual identification guide.
|Type of Tick||Diseases Carried||Signs to Watch For|
|“Dog tick”||Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever||Fever, headache, nausea
a flat, pink rash on wrists, forearms, appearing 2-5 days after the onset of fever (sometimes does not appear)
Skin ulcer appearing at the tick bite site
Swelling of the lymph glands
|“Deer tick”/Black-legged tick||Anaplasmosis||flu-like symptoms (fever, headache, chills, etc.)
blood tests showing anemia or low platelet count.
|Lone-star tick||Ehrlichiosisis||flu-like symptoms and rarely a rash
bulls-eye rash at site of tick bite
Where to check for ticks?
In our experience, our children get bitten by ticks far more often than we do. We think this is because they are primarily picking up ticks when they roll around on the grass. 95% of the time the tick is embedded in their scalp. Ticks in the head area seem to be the second-most common spot for us, such as inside the ear. The CDC also indicates that under the arms, in the belly button and behind the knees are other common hiding spots.
How to remove a tick
|If you have never had the pleasure of removing a tick, it is not a fun process. The ticks are generally tiny and they dig in hard. Most guides suggest using a tweezer to pull the tick out as close to the head of the tick as possible. It usually takes us a few tries. When a tweezer is not available, using toilet paper or a napkin to grip the tick has worked for us. When the tick comes out, many guides ask you to save it in a jar or bottle. If that is not possible, at least identify what type of tick it is. We generally flush them down the toilet so they don’t crawl out of the trash to bite us again!|
What can you do to avoid getting bitten?
|Avoid being outside at dawn or dusk||X|
|Get rid of any standing water (such as children’s wading pools, birdbaths, etc.)||X|
|Fix holes in window and door screens||X|
|Mow the lawn frequently||X|
|Create a 3-foot wide barrier of wood chips or gravel between lawns and wooded areas||X|
|Conduct a full body check after you have been outside||X|
|Shower within 2 hours of coming indoors||X|
|Examine gear and pets when coming in from outside||X|
An Overview of Insect Repellant Options
Wearing long, light-colored clothing (with the attractive fashion statement of tucking your pants into your socks) and/or mosquito netting provides a physical barrier to bugs.
As an alternative to wearing bug repellant directly on your skin, you can buy clothes with bug repellant in the fibers that typically lasts about 70 washings. Many of the clothes also build in UV protection as well. Note: this would be a great birthday or holiday gift for the outdoors person in your life. You can also buy a spray to spray your own gear and clothes but there are several warnings to be careful about breathing in the odors from the spray.
DEET is probably the best-known insect repellant and the one with the longest track record. DEET can cause skin irritation at high concentrations or in sensitive persons like small children. Products containing higher levels of DEET generally offer the longest-lasting protection and would be one of the better choices if you are outside for an extended period of time. Because DEET is a strong chemical, it is generally advised that you take care to avoid putting it on the hands of children and that you don’t use it on babies under 2 months.
Picaridin is another type of insect repellant that is an odorless alternative to DEET. It is a newer repellant and not yet used as widely as DEET. Note that it is kind of hard to identify Picaridin insect repellants. For example, the Off! Skintastic line generally contains DEET with the exception of the Family Care Clean Feel variety below.
|IR-3535 is another type of insect repellant. It is relatively new in the United States. It is generally not as effective as DEET or Picaridin but provides another option. The Avon Skin So Soft line seems to be the primary product with IR-3535 in it and one of the few products that combines SPF and bug repellant in one bottle!|
|If you are severely allergic to DEET and other repellants or just don’t like wearing them, the newest products out there are clip-on fans that blow the repellant Metofluthrin into the air. I tried one of these last summer and in general it did work well but there are some drawbacks. If you are active and moving about, the fan may not spray in every direction you need it to. I also frequently repositioned the fan to blow on different areas to make sure my airspace was covered. Sometimes I had to unclip the fan from my clothes and blow it right at determined bugs. It’s not quite as carefree as insect repellants you apply to your skin but in my experience it did work.|
Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus
|Oil of lemon eucalyptus is one of the latest natural bug repellants and has been shown to be remarkably effective. It compares favorably to the lower concentrations of DEET and Picaridin making it a good choice for casual use. For serious outdoor adventures, however, you probably still need the protection of a strong DEET spray. It is generally advised that you do not use this product on children under 3.|
|Citronella oil has been around for a while and whether it works depends on how bad your bugs seem to be. Citronella is not very effective on our bugs but if you don’t have that many bugs it may be a relatively safe and effective alternative to the other chemical sprays. Citronella oil seems to be often used in baby products where DEET is not safe to use.|
|The Mayo Clinic indicates that there is some evidence that taking 75-150 mg of thiamin each day can change your body scent and make you less attractive to mosquitos but that this issue is still being studied.|
There are a few plants with insect-repelling properties you may consider adding to your garden. I have no idea if this will actually work but I was intrigued to find out that one of Virginia’s native plants has the name “Bugbane” and is thought to repel mosquitos and flies. I planted several last fall in my garden and will see this year whether the claim is true. The classic mosquito-repelling plant, however, is a scented geranium specially bred to smell like citronella oil. As you can see from the Amazon reviews, people have mixed opinions on whether this plant is effective. Citronella oil in general has not shown to be as effective as DEET and other repellants but it may be worth a try.
What is your secret weapon against insect bites? Please share in the comments.