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As winter is ending and spring is poking her head out, it’s time for us to get outside, too! Time to enjoy the spring sunshine by walking, biking, canoeing or just strolling around the neighborhood.
Too bad the bugs are coming out of hibernation, too.
There’s no getting around the fact that we share the great outdoors with a whole mess of bugs just waiting to feast on us.
While there are some effective, non-chemical ways to discourage them, it’s almost inevitable that we’ll get bitten. That’s why it’s important to know the difference between a bite that’s just annoying and one that is dangerous.
Here you’ll find some of the most common offenders, along with ways to identify their bite and avoid them in the first place.
The heavy hitters: Mosquitoes
Mosquito bites are red, swollen spots that itch like crazy. Scratching them can lead to infection.
Surprisingly, mosquitoes have been called the world’s deadliest animal. Mosquito-related illnesses kill about 750,000 people each year, as compared to 50,000 snake-related deaths.
While most mosquito-related deaths occur outside the United States, West Nile Virus is a seasonal epidemic that has recurred each spring and summer since its arrival here in 1999. Fever, headache, body ache, skin rash and, in rare cases, brain or spinal cord inflammation, are the signs of this illness.
How to protect yourself
Mosquitoes love standing water, so to keep them away from your home, you should:
- Unclog roof gutters
- Empty unused swimming pools, and dump standing water on pool covers
- Change water in birdbaths regularly
- Remove old containers that collect unused water
Installing or repairing window screens is also a good idea.
Avoid insect repellents with DEET, a chemical proven to cause skin and neurological damage.
Instead, make your own: combine ½ cup witch hazel, ½ cup apple cider vinegar, and 40 drops of essential oil (lemongrass, tea tree, eucalyptus, citronella or rosemary) in a glass spray bottle.
Ticks feed on blood. They attach themselves to animals or, if no animals are around, to humans. Often, a person is not aware they’ve been bitten until the tick has fallen off.
The American dog tick and the deer tick are the ones you’ll most likely run into.
A dog tick bite appears as a bloody spot in the center of a red rash. These bites cause Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, named for the states where cases are most numerous.
RMSF usually begins with a headache, fever and muscle aches, followed by a rash around the ankles, forearms and wrists. The appearance of a spotty purple rash after a week of symptoms means the disease has progressed to a dangerous stage.
The spots are signs of small blood vessel leakage that can cause potentially fatal complications involving the kidneys, lungs, heart or brain.
Lyme disease is caused by the bite of a deer tick, which live mainly in the Northeast. A bullseye rash is the hallmark of a deer tick bite, but it does not always appear, making Lyme disease difficult to diagnose.
Also, since Lyme resembles many other respiratory and autoimmune disorders, it is often years before someone is diagnosed and gets proper treatment. This can lead to chronic nerve and joint pain that can plague a person for years.
The biggest risk for tick bites occurs from April through October.
How to protect yourself
Wear a hat and long-sleeved shirt, lace-up shoes or boots and long pants with cuffs tucked into socks. Lighter colors make ticks easier to spot.
Check yourself often, especially when returning indoors. Ticks like moist places, such as the hairline, waistline of pants, armpits and between toes.
If you are bitten, use tweezers as close to your skin as possible to remove the tick. Pull it straight out, so that mouth parts come out, too. You’ll want to save the tick if possible, for identification should you become ill.
Other biting bugs: Black flies
These critters inflict painful but generally harmless bites unless you’re allergic to them. In that case, they can swell to golf-ball size. During the spring, it’s best to venture out on sunny or windy days, when they’re less likely to bite.
Using a DEET-free bug repellent can help, too, especially behind the ears and knees. Blood vessels are closer to the skin in these spots, and flies will go for these feeding grounds first.
Spiders hide in woodpiles, sheds, grass, or sometimes in your front closet or cupboard! Quite often you won’t see the spider that bit you. But you’ll feel the pain!
Most spider bites are not toxic to humans. Two exceptions: the black widow spider and the brown recluse spider.
The black widow spider can be found all over the United States and Canada in woodpiles, old buildings and grass. It has a distinctive red hourglass-shaped mark on its black body.
The bite of a black widow can cause stabbing pain or none at all. Two red fang marks will identify the bite, as well as redness, tenderness, and a lump at the bite site.
Anti-venom medication is available. If you suspect a black widow bite, get medical care immediately before muscle cramping, vomiting, seizure or a spike in blood pressure occur.
The brown recluse spider lives mainly in the Midwest and South. Bites cause large red blistered areas. In rare cases, these bites can be deadly. If in doubt, seek medical attention.
Even non-poisonous spider bites can lead to cellulitis. That’s where your skin looks swollen and red and may feel warm or hot to the touch. Cellulitis can be life-threatening and may require antibiotics for treatment.
Wasps, hornets and yellow jackets
Unlike bees, these insects can sting multiple times. Their stings cause pain, swelling, and itching. Ibuprofen, ice and antihistamines will help. Pull the stinger straight out, without squeezing (to avoid more venom being squeezed into your skin).
However, if you are allergic to these stings, they can be life-threatening.
People who know they are allergic should carry an Epi-pen, a self-administered emergency dose of epinephrine, which opens airways and prevents anaphylactic shock.
Anaphylaxis is a real danger for folks who are allergic to these stings but don’t know it yet. If allergic, you will experience some or all of these symptoms:
- Flushed or pale skin
- Swollen tongue or lips
- Severe trouble breathing
- Tingling hands or feet
Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. If alone, call 911, and pull the stinger out if you can, without squeezing it. Lie down and wait for medical attention.
- Bad Bugs Slideshow: Identifying Bugs and Their Bites — WebMD
- Identifying 8 Common Bug Bites — healthcentral.com
- Tick Pictures, Removal, Bite Treatment, Symptoms & Prevention — medicinenet.com
- Block the Buzzing, Bites, and Bumps — National Institutes of Health
- When Lyme Lingers — protomag.com