We love pretty much everything about summer, with one exception: bugs. Besides the annoyance of a mosquito buzzing around your room at night, or the discomfort of an itchy bite, bugs are also associated with some very serious health risks. Tick bites can spread Lyme disease, which we know from our interviews (and personal experience) is no joke, as well as other diseases like Babesiosis. They also carry a new disease called Heartland virus, which can cause head and muscle aches, fatigue, fever, and diarrhea, and for which there is no vaccine or medication. Yikes. Meanwhile, mosquitoes can carry the threat of Zika, West Nile, chikungunya virus, dengue fever, and malaria.
What’s more, instances of these bug-borne illnesses are increasing. According to the CDC, diseases and infections from tick bites, mosquitoes, and fleas have tripled in the past 13 years! In that time, nine new germs spread by mosquitoes and ticks were either discovered or introduced into the U.S., seven of them from ticks. Ticks seem to be the fastest-growing threat, accounting for over 60% of the reported 642,602 cases of insect-borne illnesses during those 13 years. The most recent estimate puts the number of Americans who contract Lyme disease each year at around 300,000 — scarier still, only 35,000 of those are reported.
What Can You Do to Prevent Tick Bites?
The issue of how to protect yourself, unfortunately, isn’t completely uncomplicated. Bug repellents are full of strong chemicals, and according to the Environmental Working Group, there is “no sure, completely safe way to prevent bug bites. All bug repellents have pros and cons.” Keep in mind that using a bug repellent adds to your toxic load.
DEET, which gets a bad rap, is actually one of the EWG’s top ingredients for effective protection against Zika- and West Nile-carrying mosquitoes. The three ingredients they recommend looking for in bug repellents, which are effective against both mosquitoes and ticks, are:
DEET (20-30% concentration)
Picaridin (20% concentration)
IR 3535 (20% concentration)
But remember, these are still strong chemicals, so use some precaution. Avoid spraying any of them close to your face or directly on your skin; spray your clothing and avoid putting on your skin at all. By preventing them from entering your skin and bloodstream, you can reduce your toxic load and possible harm to your body. If you want a botanically-based repellent, look for one made with oil of lemon eucalyptus, which is the most effective natural repellent on the market and the only one on the CDC’s list of recommended insect repellents (just remember that oil of lemon eucalyptus doesn’t last as long as DEET or Picaridin, so you’ll need to reapply every few hours).
Even better, avoid putting chemical bug repellent on your skin by treating your clothes and shoes with permethrin or purchasing permethrin-treated clothing. Permethrin is the only pesticide approved by the EPA for the purposes of treating such items, and because it binds tightly to fabrics, very little of the chemical transfers to the skin. Still, permethrin is a toxic pesticide, so the long term effects of wearing clothing treated with it could be dangerous. If you would like to avoid chemicals altogether, wear long sleeves and long pants, burn citronella candles, control ticks and fleas on pets, and do regular tick checks. Spoiler alert: ticks love to nestle into warm, tough-to-spot places like in your groin (between buttchecks), in your armpits, in your scalp, between your toes, in your ears. So check those areas thoroughly with your fingers. If you feel any bumps, investigate further.
What to Do If a Tick Bites You
No matter how many precautions you take, there’s always a chance that you’ll still get bitten by a tick. If that happens, don’t panic! There are safe and effective ways to deal with tick bites that reduce your chances of contracting any tick-borne illnesses.
Grasp the tick with fine-tipped tweezers, as close to the skin as possible
Pull upward with steady, constant pressure — don’t twist or wrench — until the tick comes off.
Thoroughly clean the site of the tick bite with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
Put the tick in a sealed plastic bag. Don’t crush it! That way you can send the tick to a lab that can test it to see if it carried Lyme disease. The Global Lyme Alliance has a list of tick testing labs here. The University of Rhode Island also has a service called Tick Encounter where you can upload a photo of the tick and get information about it and next steps within 1-3 days. Other options include Tick Report and IGeneX.
After you’ve removed the tick and sent it to a lab, you can take a few more precautions. First, be sure to tell your doctor about your tick bite, including when it occurred and where you were. Also, pay close attention to how you feel in the days and weeks afterward, and report any rashes or fever to your doctor. When the disease is caught early, antibiotics are generally effective in treating Lyme disease. About 20% of Lyme cases, however, will not be treated completely by antibiotics and symptoms will persist for years afterward. Also, taking antibiotics is damaging to gut health and the immune system in the long run, so if you have no symptoms and the tested tick is not positive for microbes that carry Lyme disease, you may want to hold off on taking antibiotics. If you do end up taking antibiotics, make sure you have a plan to restore your good gut bacteria (like taking probiotics).
Being outside during spring and summer is the best, and nobody should hole up inside out of a fear of tick bites or tick-borne illnesses. But the growing threat of Lyme disease and its tick-borne co-infections is real, and makes completely carefree summer fun outdoors a thing of the past. With the information above, you’re armed with the knowledge and tactics you need to keep you and your loved ones safe from tick bites and other insects, without missing out on the fun of the season.