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Protect Yourself
from Summer Insect Pests

By Suzanne DeJohn
Mosquito

Mosquito (photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control's Public Health Image Library)

Hands-Free Bug Screen

The Hands-Free Bug Screen helps prevent mosquitoes from entering your home.

Bug Jacket with Head Net

The Bug Jacket with Head Net excludes all but the tiniest insects, yet allows excellent visibility and air circulation.

For most of us, mosquitoes and other insect pests are mere annoyances, but sometimes they pose real threats. The list of insect-transmitted illnesses includes West Nile virus, La Crosse encephalitis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, malaria, Lyme disease and, a recent arrival in the U.S., dengue fever. A few minutes on the Centers for Disease Control website is enough to make you don a hazmat suit before taking out the trash.

Before you cancel your summer parties, try to keep the risk in perspective and consider the statistics. In 2010 in the U.S., 57 people died from West Nile virus. In comparison, more than 600,000 people die each year from heart disease, and more than 45,000 people die in car crashes. The risk of contracting a disease from an insect bite is very low, and the risk of dying from that disease is even lower.

That said, it still makes sense to be aware of the dangers. And the nuisance factor of insect pests warrants finding ways to repel them, even if their potential as disease carriers is relatively remote. Here are some ways to protect yourself.

Mosquitoes

West Nile virus, La Crosse encephalitis, malaria and dengue fever are all transmitted by mosquitoes; most outbreaks are confined to specific geographic areas. If it seems like there are more mosquitoes than in years past, you might be right. Bats eat lots of mosquitoes, and bat populations are declining, in part due to white nose syndrome.

To minimize mosquitoes, start by ridding your yard of mosquito-breeding areas. Remove all sources of standing water, including old tires, discarded pots, even plant saucers — anything that holds water. Dump birdbaths and pet water dishes and replace with fresh water at least twice weekly. If you have a pond, consider using Mosquito Control Rings.

When possible, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and socks outdoors. Use a repellent on exposed skin and on thin clothing, because mosquitoes can bite through it. Exclude mosquitoes from your home by installing tight-fitting screens on windows and doors.

Dead birds can indicate the presence of West Nile virus in a region, so report sightings to local authorities but don't handle the carcasses. Keep in mind that birds die from many other causes besides the virus.

To learn more, read Controlling Mosquitoes

Ticks
Tick

Dog tick (photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control's Public Health Image Library)

Tick Tubes

Tick Tubes help minimize your chance of exposure to Lyme disease by up to 90 percent, by killing deer ticks before they have a chance to spread the disease to you or your pets. The cardboard tubes contain cotton that's been treated with permethrin. Simply place the tubes in mouse habitat — brushy areas, ground covers, stone walls. When mice collect the cotton for their nests the permethrin is transferred to their fur. Deer ticks that feed on mice in spring and late summer are exposed to the permethrin and killed before they can spread the disease.

Tick Gaiters

Tick Gaiters keep ticks out, helping to limit your exposure to Lyme Disease.

In addition to their disease-transmitting capacity, ticks are just plain creepy. These bloodsuckers attach themselves leechlike to your skin while they gorge on your blood. Unfortunately, ticks are also very common, as any dog owner will tell you. Ticks aren't insects but rather arachnids, more akin to spiders than mosquitoes.

The familiar dog tick doesn't transmit Lyme disease, though it can be a vector for the bacteria causing Rocky Mountain spotted fever. First identified in the western U.S. (where it's also transmitted by wood ticks), this bacterial disease occurs more often in central and southeastern states. Initial symptoms are usually headache and fever, with a spotty rash appearing a few days later. About 2,500 cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever are reported each year; although it can make you feel very sick and complications can occur if left untreated, fewer than one in 200 cases are fatal.

In contrast, almost 30,000 cases of Lyme disease were reported in 2010. Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium and is transmitted to humans by the bite of infected blacklegged ticks, sometimes called deer ticks. These ticks are tiny (between the size of a poppy seed and the size of a sesame seed, depending on the stage of growth) and much smaller than the more common dog tick. Lyme disease can cause a variety of symptoms, including a bull's-eye shaped rash, fatigue, chills, fever, headache, and muscle and joint aches and swollen lymph nodes. It can usually be treated with antibiotics if caught soon enough.

How can you protect yourself against ticks? Start by avoiding known tick-infested areas — wooded, shrubby or overgrown areas. Understand their habits: Ticks make their way onto the edges of leaves and branches, then wait to hitch a ride on a passing host, so avoid brushing against vegetation. Deer ticks need moist environments to survive, so you're less likely to encounter them in dry, sunny areas. When hiking, stay to the middle of the path. Tuck your pant legs into your socks so that ticks cannot reach your skin. Keep lawns mowed, and remove debris and brush piles.

Perform full-body tick checks after spending time outdoors. If you find an attached tick, remove it by using fine tweezers to grasp the tick close to the skin surface and pulling upward, taking care not to crush the tick. Disinfect the bite with rubbing alcohol. Inspect dogs and cats daily, too. Although they can get Lyme disease, there's no evidence that dogs and cats can spread the disease to their owners, although they can bring infected ticks into your home or yard.

What Doesn't Work

  • Skip the bug zappers. Though the repeated zaps sound satisfying, the devices kill far more beneficial insects than pests.
  • Although some herbs, especially pennyroyal, are reputed to deter insect pests, applying them to your skin can also cause serious side effects, so consult with an experienced herbalist before concocting your own repellent.
  • You'll want to weigh the relative risks and benefits before using a repellent with DEET. The chemical is an effective repellent, but long-term use may pose risks. Always follow label directions carefully, especially when using the repellent on children.
Fleas

Although they're responsible for transmitting the plague, these days fleas are more nuisance than health threat. They can, however, transmit typhus, cat scratch fever (and, yes, the plague — 10 to 15 cases are reported in the U.S. each year) but the risk is negligible. The itching from flea bites, however, is maddening. Your best weapon in the battle against flea infestation is your trusty vacuum cleaner. Frequent vacuuming can dramatically reduce the flea population. Focus your attention on crevices and corners where fleas like to hide, and dispose of the bag outside immediately. Treating your lawn with Spinosad Pest Control Spray can help suppress the flea population.

Fire Ants

The red imported fire ant is native to South America and was accidentally introduced in the U.S. in the 1930s. It's been causing headaches in southern states ever since. The reddish brown ants are small, ranging in size from 1/8" to 1/4", but they more than compensate with their aggressiveness and sheer numbers. Fire ants pack a double wallop: they bite to get a grip, and then sting and inject venom. The sting causes a burning sensation, hence the name fire ant.

Unlike native species of fire ants, the imported species has no natural enemies so it has flourished and spread across the south. Scientists have recently begun releasing phorid flies, a fire ant predator found in South America, with the hopes of controlling the spread of the ants.

In the meantime, Spinosad Pest Control Spray can be used as a drench on active fire ant mounds; follow directions on the product label.