We may all have our own opinions about which season is the best, but it’s hard to argue that summer isn’t awesome. There's the warm weather, all the fun water and beach activities, and so many opportunities for hiking, biking, camping, and other outdoor adventures.
Unfortunately summer can also feel a bit creepy-crawly, thanks to all the mosquitos, ticks, and other bugs joining in on our outdoor fun. Not only are these bugs a pain to deal with (think itchy and painful bites), some can even cause major health problems such as severe allergic reactions or chronic illnesses.
While this might sound like some pretty scary stuff, the good news is that insect bites rarely cause serious disease Insect stings: clinical features and management. Przybilla B, Rueff F. Deutsches Arzteblatt international. 2012 Mar;109(13):238-48. Plus, there are many simple things you can do to minimize risks. Follow this handy-dandy guide to know which bugs to watch out for, what issues they can cause, and how to reduce the chances of getting bitten, stung, or sick.
The Bugs to Watch Out For
Where You’ll Find Them: Bees and wasps are found across the U.S. and in all sorts of locations in the summer, from the woods to people’s homes. Bees in particular may be drawn to bright clothing or sweet foods (so maybe choose neon or ice cream, not both.)
What to Watch Out for: In most cases, stings from these insects cause slight or moderate discomfort, including a sharp burning pain, redness, or some swelling. As much as four percent of people have severe allergic reactions to these stings and need immediate medical treatment Insect stings: clinical features and management. Przybilla B, Rueff F. Deutsches Arzteblatt international. 2012 Mar;109(13):238-48. .
Where You’ll Find Them: These tiny mites are found in brushy, weedy, and grassy areas across much of the U.S.
What to Watch Out for: Chiggers bites, which often occur in areas with tender skin (e.g. ankles, backs of knees, and armpits) or where clothing restricts the bugs’ movement (e.g. areas covered by belts or elastic) can cause welts and be incredibly itchy. Luckily, chiggers do not carry any diseases transmissible to humans in North America—so the biggest issue you’ll have to deal with is discomfort.
Where You’ll Find Them: There are many types of biting flies, including black flies, deer flies, horse flies, and midges (Just to name a few!). Biting flies are present across the U.S. but are usually most prevalent around water, where they lay their eggs.
What to Watch Out for: With the exception of mosquitoes (discussed below), biting flies generally do not carry diseases and are only a nuisance. In rare cases, deer flies can transmit Tularemia, a rare bacterial disease that results in a high fever. It’s potentially fatal, but can be treated effectively with antibiotics if caught early.
Where You’ll Find Them: Mosquitos always like to crash the party. They are found practically everywhere on the planet and are most common around water, where they breed. They’re most active at night and around dawn and dusk. Mosquitoes are also drawn to carbon dioxide and skin odor, so they might be more likely to bite if you’re active. And it’s not all in your (or your friend’s) imagination—some people really are more attractive to mosquitoes than others.
What to Watch Out for: Most mosquito bites often cause little harm except for leaving itchy bumps and spots where the insects feed. But they do occasionally transmit serious diseases, including West Nile Virus, malaria, and some types of encephalitis. Recently, dengue fever and a disease called Chikungunya, which are not typically found in the continental United States, may have been transmitted in Florida.
Where You’ll Find Them (besides your nightmares): Although most scorpions are harmless, the bark scorpion, which can be found in the southwestern U.S., has venom poisonous to humans. They are most likely to be found outdoors under logs and tree bark and also sometimes hide out indoors.
What to Watch Out for: Bites can be painful and cause some numbness or tingling. Symptoms of a severe reaction include twitching, unusual movements, sweating, or altered blood pressure or heart rate. If these symptoms are present, seek immediate medical attention.
Where You’ll Find Them: There are only a few kinds of spiders that are dangerous to humans, especially black widow, brown recluse, and hobo spiders. As with scorpions, these spiders can be found both indoors and out and across North America. Fortunately tarantulas have weak venom and only look scary as heck.
What to Watch Out for: Symptoms of bites needing medical attention include pain, blistering, or skin lesions at the site of the bite, as well as increased sweating, difficulty breathing, and fever.
What to Watch Out for: Ticks can carry several illnesses, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, and anaplasmosis, which are spread by different species of ticks and are respectively more prevalent in different parts of the country. Lyme disease is now the most common vector-borne illness in the United States.
Your Action Plan
Take a deep breath! None of the information above should scare you into staying indoors all summer—especially because there are tons of reasons why going outside is good for your health. Rather, take these steps to minimize your exposure to bugs and learn to recognize early symptoms of any possible diseases.
1. Bee less attractive.
Bees and wasps are attracted to what they think is food, so cover foods and keep picnic areas clean. Also be aware that brightly colored clothing and perfumes or scented body products may attract them and other bugs as well.
2. Bee prepared.
For bee stings: Know the symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction, which include hives or other skin reactions, difficulty breathing, or swelling of the throat and tongue. If any of these symptoms are present following a sting, it’s important to seek emergency services. It’s also helpful to carry epinephrine shots, such as an EpiPen, whenever traveling with someone with a known allergy to bees.
For tick bites: Know the common symptoms of Lyme disease, which include fever, chills, aches and pains, and a rash visible at the site of the bite (In particular, bites associated with lyme disease sometimes produce a red, bulls-eye-shaped rash). Go to a doctor if you experience fever, headache, muscle or joint pain, extreme fatigue, or other symptoms described above—these may be signs of an illness. Many tick-borne illnesses can be treated with antibiotics or other means, but earlier treatment is better.
For mosquitos: Symptoms of these mosquito-transmitted illnesses generally include body and muscle aches, fever, headaches, fatigue, joint pain, and stiff neck. Treatments for mosquito-borne illnesses vary—medicine is available to treat malaria, while West Nile Virus, encephalitis, and Chikungunya are caused by viruses and generally have to run their course, similar to the cold or flu.
For spiders: If you experience any of the reactions described above, try to identify or capture the spider, clean and ice the bite, and seek medical attention. Treatment will depend upon the type of spider and severity of the bite.
3. Play nice.
Don’t swat at bees, wasps, or other bugs—it will only make them defensive and more likely to sting! Instead, calmly move away from their flight path.
4. Keep off the grass.
Some places have more bugs than others, so it may make sense (and be more enjoyable) to avoid particularly buggy areas. Ticks are most common in tall grass and shrubs, so it’s best to walk or run on trails that are mowed or less brushy . Mosquitoes breed in standing water, its best to avoid (or move quickly through) these habitats. Additionally, eliminating sources of standing water around the home—such as buckets or wheelbarrows—can help reduce their numbers.
5. Practice safe recreation: Always use protection.
One of the easiest ways to keep bugs away is to use clothing to minimize exposed skin. It’s not always fun to wear extra clothing in the summer, but doing so can also help you minimize some impacts from sun damage. Try wearing shoes, pants, long-sleeved shirts, and other clothing to minimize exposed skin, tuck your pants into your socks (leg warmers, summer style), wear a hat (or a bandana tied over your head), and wear light-colored clothing so it’s easier to spot (and remove) any ticks or crawlies that try to hitch a ride.
When sleeping in areas with lots of mosquitos, consider using a bed net to keep bugs away while you sleep. Likewise, stay in screened-in areas during peak bug times. If out and about when mosquitos are most active, consider using a head net (It's fashionable and useful!).
7. Use repellents.
If avoiding bugs isn’t doing the trick, there are numerous options for repelling them.
- DEET is a widely used and effective insect repellent, but can be toxic at very high levels. Although DEET has gotten a bit of a bad rap, it is safer than its reputation suggests and can be a reasonable choice when bug protection is needed. Products containing up to 30 percent DEET are generally considered safe for adult use and are often as or more effective than other products.
- Natural botanical oils are found in many repellents, but the effectiveness of these varies widely. Some—including lemongrass and thyme—may repel insects effectively Repellent, Irritant and Toxic Effects of 20 Plant Extracts on Adults of the Malaria Vector Anopheles gambiae Mosquito. Deletre, E., Martin, T., Campagne, P., et al. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8(12): e82103. , but many do not. Not only do botanical products, such as citronella, clove, and lemongrass oil, vary in their effectiveness, but because they are not tested at the same level as chemicals, they may carry high levels of allergens. The most effective botanical products generally contain oil of lemon eucalyptus, an extract of an Australian tree. It’s most active compound, para-methane 3-8, diol (PMD) can perform as well as lower-concentration DEET.
- Picaridin is another synthetic compound that mimics piperine, a natural compound produced by plants. Picardin has similar effectiveness to DEET without some of the same potential risks, making it a good option to consider.
- Permethrin, an insecticide (not technically a repellent) that is naturally derived from chrysanthemum flowers, can be applied to tents or clothing to reduce bites from mosquitoes, flies, and ticks Passive Prophylaxis With Permethrin-Treated Tents Reduces Mosquito Bites Among North American Summer Campers. Boulware, D.R., Beisang III, A.A. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, 2005; 16(1): 9–15.00 . Clothing treated with permethrin has been shown to reduce the number of tick bites.
When choosing a repellent, be sure to read the label. Effectiveness varies based upon the type of repellent, its concentration, and how often it’s reapplied. Also be aware that it’s more effective to apply sunscreen and repellent as two separate products: Put sunscreen on first, then the repellent.
Life’s an Itch! The Takeaway
It’s pretty much impossible to avoid all bug bites, but the good news is that the vast majority are merely annoying. By knowing where pests like to hide out and taking steps to minimize contact with them (and knowing what to do in the event of a bite or sting), you’ll do a lot to preserve both your health and your sanity.
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