Bug bites are an itchy nuisance, but they are also potentially life threatening – especially for people with damaged immune systems, children and the elderly.
This is not just a problem in other countries where there is malaria. Mosquitoes here in the Northwest can carry West Nile virus, western equine encephalitis and St. Louis encephalitis. All of these can cause brain swelling, confusion and fevers. Additional diseases carried by mosquitoes in other regions of the United States include eastern equine encephalitis, California encephalitis and (rarely) malaria. In Yosemite Valley in California, you also need to protect yourself from flea bites, which can carry the bubonic plague.
Ticks can spread disease as well: Lyme disease, tick-borne relapsing fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tick paralysis, tularemis, anaplasmosis and babesiosis. In Washington there are fewer cases of tick-borne disease than some other states, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take steps to avoid tick bites and always check your entire body for ticks after outdoor activities. If you find a tick on you, keep it in a Ziploc bag for 30 days, even if you do not think it may have bitten you. If you do become ill during that time, identification of the tick that bit you can make it easier for medical staff to determine if it is likely to be from the tick and what sort of illness it is.
Do what you can to avoid insect bites by wearing long sleeve shirts, long pants and a hat when you are in places with ticks and mosquitoes, and avoid going out around dusk and dawn when mosquitoes are the most active. Take the additional precaution of tucking those long pant legs into your socks or boots and your shirt into your pants when hiking to prevent tick bites. Spraying permethrin, lemon eucalyptus oil or DEET on your clothes helps also, especially for mosquitoes, which can sometimes get you even through clothing.
If you have ever had a pet that had fleas, you know how hard fleas can be to avoid and get rid of. If you are in an area where they have had cases of bubonic plague like the Yosemite Valley, protect yourself from infection by avoiding any contact with wild rodents. Do not feed the squirrels, chipmunks or other rodents no matter how cute they seem to be. And definitely do not touch sick or dead rodents. If you have your pets with you, be sure to keep your pets away from any and all wild animals.
Many of these diseases initially present with fever, headache, body ache and chills. They can be difficult to distinguish from a garden variety cold or even the flu, so if you do begin to feel unwell and you seek medical attention, be sure to let your health care professional know of any potential exposures you may have had to insects carrying infections. For example, “I was camping in Yosemite a couple of weeks ago and I did get some insect bites,” or “I was hiking locally and there was a tick on me when I got home – here it is,” or “I forgot to wear mosquito repellent last weekend and I got eaten alive by mosquitoes.” It’s more than likely that you just have a cold or the flu, but it is in your best interest to give your health care provider has as much information as possible, so be sure to speak up.
Do not let fear of insect bites keep you from getting outdoors. The weather will be cooling off soon and the fall here is a beautiful time to explore. Just stay safe and keep the bugs off.
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