- Blood-sucking pests like ticks and mosquitoes can carry a host of diseases that can cause permanent harm or even death.
- Taking steps to keep ticks and mosquitoes away can make your summer safer and more pleasant.
- By using certain kinds of repellent, wearing the right clothes, taking precautions before you travel, and doing tick checks, you can keep yourself safe.
Nothing ruins a summer vacation like picking up a serious illness from a tick or mosquito.
There are plenty of reasons to spend time outdoors in the summer (and in any season, really), from afternoons in the park to camping trips. But when it’s warm outside, pests like ticks, mosquitoes, and fleas are particularly active.
Those blood suckers aren’t just annoying – they also carry serious diseases.
Mosquitoes can spread malaria, Zika, dengue, chikungunya, West Nile, and other illnesses. Ticks can spread well-known illnesses like Lyme Disease as well as other lesser-known but scary conditions like Powassan virus or an allergy to mammal products, especially red meat. In certain parts of the world, like the US Southwest or Madagascar, some fleas can still infect people with the plague.
Cases of many of these pest-borne diseases are on the rise, so it’s worth doing everything you can to avoid getting infected. With a reasonable amount of preparation, you can cut down your risk of contracting a serious condition that could have a significant impact on your life.
Being aware of your risks, using the right products, and making sure to check yourself after being outside can make a big difference.
Here’s how to keep the summer fun, active, and as pest-free as possible.
If you’re travelling or moving abroad, know about the diseases you can catch at your destination.
A trip to a new place – especially a tropical one – means that you can pick up any pathogens (disease-causing organisms) that live there.
The threat of Zika virus in many Caribbean and Latin American countries is still very real. Since that virus can cause birth defects, the CDC advises that pregnant women and couples considering pregnancy avoid travelling to those areas. (Partners need to be wary too, as the virus can be sexually transmitted).
There are plenty of other diseases it’s important to be watchful for as well. In many of the places where Zika is actively transmitted, dengue and chikungunya – both viruses that can be extremely painful and dangerous – circulate, too. It’s important to get vaccinated against the potentially deadly yellow fever virus before travelling to a risky area. And of course, malaria is still a major problem in many parts of the world.
Check the CDC’s travel website for pre-travel advice and recommended precautions before embarking on a new adventure.
Know where you’re most likely to pick up ticks or other pests.
Pests that carry dangerous diseases aren’t always found while travelling – many can be picked up in your own backyard.
You’re most likely to pick up ticks while walking through tall grass, especially near wooded or brushy areas. Stay in the center of trails, cover up vulnerable areas with clothes as much as possible, and do a thorough tick check after any time outside.
Ticks (which are technically arachnids, not insects) are some of the biggest threats in the US. Diseases spread by ticks are rapidly on the rise, with the CDC estimating that there are 300,000 Lyme disease infections in the US each year– eight to 10 times the number that gets reported.
Avoiding other pests requires different steps. Though cases of plague from fleas are rare, it’s worth being wary of fleas near dead rodents in the southwest of the US.
Wear clothes that will help protect your skin.
If you are going to be walking through the woods or in buggy regions anywhere, the easiest way to keep a mosquito or tick from reaching your skin is to make sure that skin isn’t exposed in the first place.
Long pants, sleeves, and socks can help keep ticks from finding a patch of skin to bite.
Treat clothes and camping gear to keep unwanted visitors away.
If you want your clothes to help you battle bugs, look for outdoor gear that’s been pre-treated with permethrin. This may be particularly helpful for ticks, which are harder to keep away with some repellents.
The chemical doesn’t work on your skin because it doesn’t stay on there, but clothes or camping gear that have been treated with permethrin can deter bugs. According to a study published in the Journal of Medical Entymology in May, it takes less than a minute for the black-legged tick nymphs that can spread Lyme disease to die or become immobilized after being placed on permethrin-treated gear.
Pre-treated clothes are good for around 70 wash cycles. Always wash permethrin-treated clothing separately, and check labels to see how long your treatment is good for.
You can also buy a permethrin wash or spray to apply to your own clothes, boots, or the outside of tents. These self-applied sprays don’t tend to be effective for as long as as the pre-treated materials, but can always be re-applied later.
There are a few locations, however – Puerto Rico is one – where mosquitoes have become resistant to permethrin.
Use the right repellent on your skin.
On a hot day or at the beach, most of us aren’t going to rely on long sleeves and pants to keep bug-free.
When it comes to choosing a repellent to put on your skin, select an EPA-registered product that’s known to work.
According to recent research, the most effective mosquito repellents contain DEET or PMD (the active ingredient in oil of lemon eucalyptus). Most DEET products contain at least 20% DEET, which keeps both mosquitoes and ticks away.
DEET is considered safe by the CDC. It’s even safe for children over two months of age and pregnant women, but there’s no repellent for younger infants. The American Academy of Pediatrics says not to use DEET concentrations higher than 30% on kids, and recommends they wash their skin after returning inside.
PMD and oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) should not be used on kids younger than three years old.
Both DEET and PMD work on ticks too, though the protection doesn’t always last as long.
Other products that work to keep bugs away (though not always as well) include Picaridin, IR3535, and 2-undecanone.
Always conduct a post-excursion tick check.
Ticks can be very hard to spot, and some of the worst ones are no larger than a poppy seed. (Can you find the ticks hidden in this photo of a muffin?)
Do a careful check of your skin, clothes, gear, and pets after hanging out in any potentially tick-infested zone. You can do this in the shower, which has the added benefit of washing away unattached ticks. Use a mirror or ask a partner for help to check everywhere, including under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the back of the knees, in and around the hair, between the legs, and around the waist.
Make sure to conduct a careful check on kids as well.
Learn how to take a tick off the right way.
Ticks can take up to 24 hours to transmit Lyme Disease, so if you spot one, your priority should be to remove it immediately. (Some scary diseases like Powassan virus can be transmitted much more quickly, though fortunately that particular condition is rare.)
Though you may have heard urban legends about using petroleum jelly or lighting a match to remove ticks, such methods are unnecessary – you can just pull the creatures off.
The CDC recommends using tweezers if possible. Grab the tick as close to the skin as you can and pull it steadily out, without twisting or jerking it, since you don’t want parts to break off. If any parts of the tick remain in your skin, try to remove them with tweezers as well.
Don’t crush the tick in your hands – drop it in alcohol, place it in a sealed bag, wrap it in tape, or flush it down the toilet. If you’re worried about getting sick, you may want to keep the dead tick for future testing.
Clean the affected area of skin with rubbing alcohol or soap after.
If you think you are sick, see a doctor.
Some mosquito- and tick-borne diseases can become much more dangerous if left untreated.
If you have been around deer ticks, it’s important to know the signs of Lyme disease. Common symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic bulls-eye-shaped skin rash. If left untreated, the infection can spread to the joints, heart, and nervous system, causing more serious problems.
Zika often doesn’t cause symptoms, so travellers who encounter the virus may be unaware of an infection. But when it does, patients often experience fever, rash, headache, joint and muscle pain, and red eyes. It can also cause Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can cause nerve damage and paralysis.
If you’ve travelled to an area where malaria is endemic, be on the lookout for chills, fever, sweats, headaches, aching, and nausea.
If you feel sick, it’s worth making an appointment with a medical professional.
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