Summer is the perfect time to enjoy the great outdoors, whether that means hiking, running, cycling or any other sunny-weather activities. But before you head outside, it's important to take the necessary steps to protect yourself against insect bites.
Not only do insect bites hurt, itch and leave behind unsightly spots and rashes — they can sometimes result in serious illnesses.
Insect-Borne Illnesses Are on the Rise
From 2004 to 2016, the number of diseases caused by ticks, mosquitoes and fleas more than tripled, according to the most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). During those 13 years, there were more than 640,000 cases of insect-borne illnesses. In 2016 alone, there were more than 96,000 cases, compared to just 27,000 in 2004.
Kate Fowlie, health communication specialist for the CDC's National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, explains to LIVESTRONG.com that these diseases — especially those induced by ticks — increasingly threaten the health of people in the United States. And, unfortunately, the number of tick-borne diseases has more than doubled since 2004, with Lyme disease accounting for 82 percent of that increase. In 2017 alone, state and local health departments reported a record number of cases of tick-borne disease to the CDC — a staggering 59,349.
And that's just the cases that were reported.
In the past, the CDC has estimated that 300,000 people are infected with Lyme disease each year, though fewer than 40,000 of those cases are reported. "The numbers on some of these diseases have gone to astronomical levels," Lyle Petersen, the CDC's director of vector-borne diseases, told The New York Times.
There is no vaccine for this scary disease, spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito, according to the CDC. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus, and infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. Luckily, it is extremely rare, with no cases reported in the U.S. in 2018 or 2019.
West Nile Virus
The leading cause of mosquito-borne disease in the continental United States, West Nile virus is spread through the bite of an infected mosquito, according to the CDC. There are no vaccines to prevent it, nor medications to treat it. While about 20 percent of those infected develop a fever or other symptoms, many people don't even know they have it. Luckily, the chances of developing a serious and potentially fatal illness are just 1 in 150.
In 2019, West Nile virus infections in humans have been reported to the CDC by Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wyoming.
This infectious disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and transmitted to humans and even pets through deer tick bites. Per the CDC, symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and a skin rash called erythema migrans, which often appears in a bullseye shape. If gone untreated, the infection can spread to the joints, heart and nervous system.
The majority of Lyme cases are reported in the Northeast, according to the CDC, with 94 percent from 12 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
In recent years, there has been a lot of chatter about a certain type of tick that can induce a meat allergy, known as an alpha-gal allergy.
Alpha-gal is a type of sugar found naturally in many mammals (except humans) as well as some types of ticks. An alpha-gal allergy is an allergy to this type of sugar, with a reaction occurring when someone eats meat from mammals that have the molecule or is exposed to products made from them, such as some milk products, vaccines and cosmetics. It is not yet clear if the allergy is transmitted through a tick bite, according to the CDC.
Most reported cases of this allergy have come from the southeastern and midwestern United States.
Why These Illnesses Are on the Rise
While Petersen says multiple factors have contributed to the overall rise in bug-borne diseases (including an increase in overseas travel and reforestation projects), he noted in a media briefing that warmer weather has certainly played a part.
Petersen avoided pointing to climate change directly, but did say, "What I can tell you is increasing temperatures have a number of effects on all these vector-borne diseases." A couple of those effects? Ticks have been able to spread to parts of the U.S. that were once too cold for them (think Maine and Minnesota), and hot spells can spark mosquito outbreaks.
8 Ways to Protect Yourself
Fowlie explains that there are multiple steps people can take to protect themselves from the tick and mosquito bites that may lead to these illnesses.
1. Use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered insect repellents with one of these active ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol, 2-undecanone.
2. Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants whenever possible, and especially in areas that are wooded or have thick vegetation.
3. Treat clothing and other outdoor items, such as boots, pants, socks, and tents, with permethrin or buy permethrin-treated clothing and gear.
4. Inspect your body for ticks after you've spent time outdoors. Remove them immediately. Ticks can ride into the home on clothing, gear and pets, then attach to you later, so be sure to carefully examine these things as well.
5. Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors, which will help you more easily find crawling ticks before they bite you.
6. Regularly treat dogs and other indoor/outdoor pets with products that kill and/or repel ticks.
7. Tumble-dry clothes in a dryer on high heat for 10 minutes to kill ticks. If the clothes are damp, additional time may be needed. If the clothes require washing first, hot water is recommended, as cold and medium temperature water will not kill ticks effectively. If the clothes cannot be washed in hot water, tumble dry on low heat for 90 minutes or high heat for 60 minutes. The clothes should be warm and completely dry.
8. Avoid areas with thick vegetation, high grass and leaf litter; walk in the center of trails when hiking.
If you do develop symptoms after being bitten by a tick, seek medical attention promptly. Most Lyme disease infections are successfully treated with a two- to three-week course of oral antibiotics.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Vital Signs: Trends in Reported Vectorborne Disease Cases — United States and Territories, 2004–2016"
- JAMA Network: "CDC Estimates 300 000 US Cases of Lyme Disease Annually"
- The New York Times: "Tick and Mosquito Infections Spreading Rapidly, C.D.C. Finds"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "About Zika"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "West Nile Virus"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "West Nile Virus Activity by State 2019"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Lyme Disease"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Lyme Disease: Data and Surveillance"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Alpha-gal Allergy"
- United States Environmental Protection Agency: "Repellents: Protection against Mosquitoes, Ticks and Other Arthropods"