With warmer weather comes more time spent outdoors, and increased exposure to tick and mosquito-related diseases.
Lyme disease, transmitted by ticks, is currently the most common vector-borne illness in the U.S. Coupled with that, mosquitoes are the number one vectors of human disease, both infectious and toxic.
Ticks and mosquitoes ramp up activity in spring and summer months, and both are classified by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as transmitters of various bacterial and viral vector-borne diseases illnesses caused by infectious microbes that are transmitted to people by blood-sucking arthropods. Luckily, you can protect yourself from these tiny pests, and there are even ways to help ward them off.
Ticks and Lyme Disease
Geographically, Lyme disease cases have been reported in nearly every state. However, 96 percent of confirmed cases are in the Northwest. In 2011, Virginia health officials warned residents to be aware of the increase in cases of Lyme disease spreading southward and westward from the northern regions of the state.
The lifecycle of Lyme disease typically begins when larval blacklegged ticks feed on Lyme-infected white-footed mice. Infected larvae grow to become nymph ticks which in turn infect other people or animals. Ticks thrive in the shade and their habitats most often include leaf litter, sticks and stumps in wooded areas. Ticks will climb onto people or animals at foot level, but they typically crawl upward so bites can occur anywhere on the body.
Those infected with Lyme disease may experience a range of symptoms. Early signs include an erythema migrans rash at the site of the bite, fatigue, headaches and swollen lymph nodes. Progressive symptoms might be ring-shaped lesions, a severe cough or sore throat. Left undiagnosed or untreated, later symptoms can manifest into arthritis, keratitis, and even myocardial issues and cognitive impairment.
When possible, it is best to avoid prolonged periods in tick habitats. Taking preventative measures before you spend time outdoors will also greatly decrease your risk of Lyme and other tick-related diseases:
- Apply repellents like DEET containing at least 20 to 30% DEET or picaridin on exposed skin.
- Apply products containing 0.5% of permethrin insecticide on clothing. Treat clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents. The protection lasts through several washings and pre-treated clothing is even available through some outfitters.
- Wear light colored clothing to make identifying ticks easier.
If you do find a tick on you, remove it as soon as possible, wash the area with warm soap and water, and put the tick in a dry container to save it in the freezer for later identification if necessary. The sooner ticks are removed, the less likely they are to spread disease.
Animals can contract the disease as well and dogs are 50 percent more likely to get Lyme disease than humans. While Lyme disease in animals is more difficult to detect, clinical symptoms include Lyme-related arthritis, swollen joints, and fever. The best way to protect your pets from Lyme disease is to avoid places known for a large tick population or, if your animal does visit a heavily wooded or grassy area, inspect them for ticks afterward and remove any immediately with tweezers. You might also consider topical or oral tick preventatives that can be administered.
While less common than Lyme, it is important to be aware of other tick-borne diseases including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Southern tick-associated rash illness, Babesiosis, and Tularemia (see the thorough breakdown of all of these diseases, provided by the National Institutes of Health).
An increase in global temperatures has shown an uptick in reports of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever. These diseases are particularly prevalent in tropical climates and rampant in warmer, more humid states, however species of mosquitoes are found as far north as Minnesota and as far west as Nevada.
A 2015 review showed West Nile virus, Eastern equine encephalitis, and Chikungunya as the most common mosquito-transmitted diseases in North America. Along with that, mosquito-transmitted Zika virus outbreaks have emerged recently, primarily in South America. In cases like West Nile virus, mosquitoes infect people after feeding on infected birds. Some mosquito-borne diseases can also be transmitted through blood transfusions, organ transplants, and from mother to baby during pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding.
Many people who contract a mosquito-borne disease never experience any symptoms, while some may be affected with febrile or serious conditions ranging from headaches, fever and joint pain to encephalitis, meningitis and microcephaly.
Certain diseases, like Zika or West Nile, have no vaccines that will prevent you from contracting them, but there are ways you can proactively protect yourself:
- Apply EPA-registered insect repellents prior to going outside.
- When possible, wear protective clothing like pants or long sleeves when you are outside.
- Secure screens over windows and doors to keep mosquitoes out of your home.
- Treat your clothing and gear with permethrin, or buy pre-treated items.
- Empty and scrub, turn over, cover or throw out any items that hold water like tires, buckets or birdbaths at least once a week, since mosquitoes lay eggs near water making any type of standing water a breeding ground.
- Consider a yard treatment through a pest service that will help keep mosquitoes at bay for up to a month.
As with ticks, mosquito-borne diseases also affect animals. Dogs can be bitten by as many as 500 mosquitoes per day in peak season. This is problematic, as more than 70 species of mosquitoes have been shown capable of transmitting dangerous heart worms to dogs and cats. As such, it is essential to treat your pets for heart worm, which, if left untreated, can lead to serious or fatal health risks.
Ultimately, it is unlikely that you will be able to completely thwart the risk of tick or mosquito bites, but there are many simple steps you can take to prevent exposure. By keeping these tips in mind and arming yourself with information, you are one step ahead in ensuring that your time spent outside during warmer months is healthier.
Brittany DeLong is a health enthusiast and freelance writer and editor based in Sterling, Virginia. For the past eight years she has focused her writing on health, fitness, and lifestyle topics for various publications including The Health Journal, Posh Seven Magazine, and Washington Family Magazine. Brittany earned a master’s degree in electronic publishing from The George Washington University and a bachelors degree in journalism from George Mason University. She is an avid hiker and most recently hiked to the summit of Huayna Picchu in Peru.