woman spraying a child in a purple tshirt with bug spray when in the woods

Tiny Vampires

We are gathering carefully outdoors more than ever this summer in order to stay COVID-safe. And who else likes to have a meal outside on a warm evening? Mosquitos. All they want is a little of your blood, but what they leave behind under your skin is an unwelcome parting gift –their saliva. Mosquito saliva contains highly irritating proteins which alert your immune system to send out the histamine troops to get those foreign proteins under control. So, those itchy, red welts that last a couple of days are from your system trying to help out.

Here’s what I’ve learned from 5 trips to Tanzania and 2 to Honduras where mosquitos transmit malaria, dengue fever, zika, and chickungunya. In Tanzania, I was also bitten by Tsetse flies and Nairobi sand flies. Both leave huge painful welts, so I’m all about prevention and protection.

Go with Prevention

  • Clothing – The proboscis of a mosquito can fit through the fabric of most clothing, especially if it is a thin fabric and fits tightly against the skin. Spandex and yoga pants? Not so good. Tightly woven and heavier fabric that fits loosely is best. Long sleeves and long pants? It’s a great idea, but, in warm weather usually, we are in shorts and a sleeveless shirt so you might need other measures.
  • They Don’t Like a Breeze – Even a light breeze makes it hard for mosquitos to fly and navigate. Pick a picnic spot with some wind, or set up a couple of fans on your patio. Aim them down as the little buggers fly low to avoid strong air currents.
  • Mosquito Mealtime – Because they don’t like wind, mosquitos prefer to dine out on you at dawn and dusk. They are crepuscular – An SAT word for your teens for sure, which means, active at twilight. That’s when to stay inside. Also, mosquitoes breed in stagnant freshwater so check your yard for plant saucers, buckets, etc. where water has been sitting. 
  • DEET (N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide) repellent – There is wide scientific consensus that DEET is safe and effective when used as directed. This means spray on your clothing, hat, socks, but use in lotion form on your hands to carefully apply to uncovered skin. Do not get near eyes or mouth.
  • Picaridin is another synthetic compound that mimics piperine, a natural compound produced by pepper plants. Picaridin has similar effectiveness to DEET.  Lotion lasts for up to 14 hours against mosquitoes and ticks. 
  • Synthesized Plant Oils – effective on mosquitoes, some ticks.  These plant oils are still considered chemicals and are regulated by the EPA. 
  • Lemon eucalyptus oil can repel mosquitoes for up to six hours.
  • IR3535, a synthetic based on a natural amino acid, can last up to eight hours
  • If you live in area with a lot of mosquitos, be sure to have screens over the windows. 
  • Use your air conditioner to cool the house down as there are filters that trap flying insects

Mosquito & Tick-Borne Illnesses

There are reasons beyond the annoying itch to avoid getting bit by mosquitos or ticks. Mosquitos can carry a variety of diseases: West Nile, Zika, or encephalitis viruses, and also in other countries, chikungunya, dengue, and malaria. 

While I was in Honduras, I cared for many people with Malaria, Dengue, and Zika. 

  • West Nile Virus – The incubation period is from two to 14 days, with symptoms such as body and muscle aches, fever, headaches, fatigue, joint pain, and stiff neck.
  • Zika Virus – fever, rash, headache, joint pain, conjunctivitis, muscle pain. There have been no reports of someone getting Zika from a mosquito in the continental U.S. since 2017.
  • Chikungunya Virus – fever, joint pain, headache, muscle pain, joint swelling, or rash.
  • Encephalitis Virus – headache, flu-like symptoms, sensitivity to light, neck stiffness, lethargy, confusion, or hallucinations.
  • Malaria – fever, flu-like illness, shaking chills, headache, muscle aches, tiredness, nausea, vomiting.
  • Dengue – most people will not feel sick, but a few will develop a mild case leading to headache, muscle and joint pain. Rarely, dengue becomes severe leading to internal bleeding and even death.  

Ticks

Ticks are found in grassy and woodland areas in most of the US. They drop from trees (wear a hat!) and jump from tall grasses and hitch rides on unsuspecting hikers and campers. And check the dog too, especially in the crevices in their paws. Ticks can carry several illnesses:

  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever – a rare bacterial disease spread through the bite of an infected tick. Most people who get sick with RMSF will have a fever, headache, and rash..
  • Lyme disease – Lyme disease is now the most common animal to human illness in the US. Symptoms include fever, chills, aches and pains, and a rash visible at the site, often in a red bulls-eye-shape. If you find a tick, do try to save it in a plastic bag for testing.
  • Ehrlichiosis – a bacterial illness transmitted by ticks that causes flu-like symptoms from mild body aches to severe fever.
  • Anaplasmosis – spread by different species of ticks most frequently reported from the Upper Midwest and Northeastern United States 

First Aid for Bites

  • ice or a cold compress
  • calamine lotion or caladryl cream
  • apply a paste of baking soda and water 
  • take an antihistamine 
  • apply Over the Counter hydrocortisone cream
  • apply a paste of oatmeal and water
  • avoid hot showers, this increases blood flow to the area, which makes the symptoms spread

Or, this ancient Chinese remedy – rub the inside of a banana peel directly onto the bite and leave for a while. Can’t hurt. 

I hope these help. Do send me your tried and true tips for avoiding bites this summer. 

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