Ticks… Mosquitoes… Kissing bugs…
Summer is full of nasty insects. Mosquitoes are already eating us alive here in Baltimore. And as we wrote at the end of May, we’re seeing a higher than average number of ticks this year.
What’s more, we just saw a news story break about a brand-new kind of mosquito-spread disease. It’s called the Keystone virus and until this month, doctors hadn’t detected it in humans.
A teenage boy in northern Florida experienced fever and a rash. Doctors tested for a wide range of diseases, including Zika. But everything came back negative. Finally, they tested for the Keystone virus, something that up until now had only infected animals.
He tested positive for the virus eventually, but in the meantime, his symptoms cleared. Luckily, he didn’t develop encephalitis, a known side effect in animals. That’s a dangerous inflammation of the brain.
Here’s the thing… these headlines about a new disease to worry about are just alarmist nonsense.
First of all, the boy’s rash cleared in about two days without treatment. Second, researchers realized that many folks likely have the virus and never sought treatment… Low-grade fevers and a rash could signal other issues. And if they clear up quickly, the infected person likely won’t go to the doctor.
So, before you decide to stay indoors all summer, remember that most bugs won’t hurt you. And if you are still worried, a little prevention is all you need to stay safe.
If you’re going to the Caribbean, Mexico, or South America, it’s never a bad idea to take a few extra precautions against mosquitoes… They carry plenty of other, more harmful diseases than Zika.
Wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants, sleep under a mosquito net if you’re in a screenless room, and apply insect repellant. And make sure to read the ingredients of your bug spray…
The main ingredient of many mosquito repellants, diethyltoluamide (DEET), has resulted in serious cases of toxicity, nerve damage, and brain swelling. More common are skin rashes, headaches, or numbness. (Yes, some of the same symptoms of the viruses you’re trying to keep away.)
An Australian study compared a 40% DEET spray with a 32% concentration of lemon eucalyptus oil. Both had a greater than 95% success of keeping mosquitoes away. DEET lasted twice as long as the oil, but the fact that an essential oil did so well in the trial seems promising.
I use a brand called Repel, which makes a DEET-free lemon eucalyptus spray, as well as a 15% DEET spray (its “scented family formula”). I’ll first use the DEET-free spray, and then add DEET if the bugs seem particularly ferocious.
Also, if you live in an area with mosquitoes and have an outside space you enjoy, try planting natural repellents like geraniums, mints (of all kinds), lavender, and pennyroyal. These plants keep away all sorts of annoying insects.
We’ve also seen similar alarming stories about the rise of Chagas disease in parts of Texas. It’s caused by a parasite that’s carried by infected kissing bugs. But the reality is, the parasite responsible infects animals more than humans. Also, it typically only hits areas of poverty in the southernmost part of the U.S.
The thing is, this parasite, Trypanosoma cruzi likes to hide in our heart and intestine muscles, sometimes causing issues decades later. About 30% of people infected will develop gastrointestinal and/or cardiac disease from it, including heart failure.
Although we’re hearing about more cases, few actually start in the U.S. According to a paper in American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in 2016, fewer than 30 cases started within the U.S. The remaining 300,000 estimated U.S. cases came from folks infectedoutside the country.
Only about 50% of infected bites from a kissing bug produce symptoms. These include fever, headache, muscle pain, swelling, and enlarged lymph nodes. The tell-tale sign is a swollen, purplish spot, usually on the eyelid or around the lips.
If a kissing bug does bite you and you suspect you have the parasite, getting medication as soon as you can (usually within two months) will kill it completely.
The best way to stay safe – use the same practices we recommend for other bugs. Seal up any cracks and openings in your home. Keep the area around your home clean and free of rocks and debris.
And just like we recommend for ticks, perform checks on yourself and your pets after any time outdoors.
Taking a few simple measures to protect yourself will alleviate a lot of worry, but keep in mind… the majority of bug bites won’t hurt you at all. Don’t let fear keep you from enjoying time in the great outdoors this summer… walking, hiking, biking, and exploring our state parks are great ways to get some sun and exercise.
- Did you miss it? Our issue on ticks.
- Something different: Mosquito buzzing is actually a mating call.
Here’s to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
June 28, 2018