A recent CDC report is casting a long shadow on outdoor activities this summer. A New York Times follow up is saying that diseases borne by mosquitos, ticks and fleas has tripled since 2004. This includes classics like Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, rabbit fever, Zika virus, Powassan virus, Heartland virus and even some new ones that have just recently breached the Western hemisphere, such as chikungunya – an extremely painful joint disease.
Lyme disease alone has skyrocketed in terms of incidences. Part of this, the CDC claims, is due to more stringent reporting requirements on their part–meaning perhaps we are simply catching more cases. Nevertheless, reported cases are on the rise with 35,000 last year–even though the CDC thinks there could be at least 10 times that many people getting Lyme Disease every year.
Now, if you are sufficiently scared, let’s turn this all around.
The New York Times published a great article about how to protect yourself from fleas, ticks and mosquitos this season. Of course, their main strategy is to have you coat yourself in insecticide (we’ll get to that later). Other than that, some great ideas include:
- Cover up – Covering up when in potential problem areas. Even if it’s hot, wear long pants, tucked into your socks, long sleeves, a hat and a bandana around your neck.
- Avoid problem areas – Do your best to avoid terrain where ticks will be more likely to live, such as areas with tall grass, bushy areas or on fallen logs. In short, stick to the trail and be mindful of what scrapes against you while you’re walking. Many ticks attach to humans as they brush lightly against tall grass.
- Check yourself – Once your hike is finished, thoroughly examine your body and your clothes for ticks. Remove immediately. [How to remove a tick]
- Control your own domain – A fair amount of these types of infections happen in your own yard. Do what you can to minimize mosquitos and ticks there. This includes avoiding any standing water in the yard, burning citronella, making sure your window screens are fully intact and with no holes, keeping your grass mowed and building fencing around your garden (where ticks like to congregate). You can also run an electric fan near you as you sit outside in the yard or on the porch. It diffuses that “human smell” and throws mosquitos off your scent.
Insecticide and bug spray
Most insecticides are toxic if swallowed, inhaled or even when exposed to bare skin. The more harmful types are organophosphates and carbamates. Symptoms of exposure include eye tearing, blurred vision, salivation, sweating, coughing, vomiting, and frequent bowel movements and urination, decreased blood pressure, decreased heart rate, seizures, labored breathing and muscle twitching.
It’s highly unlikely that you will be using organophosphates and carbamates on your skin. BUT, you might be using it in your yard and exposing yourself in that way.
Most over-the-counter bug sprays use DEET for their active ingredient. DEET is actually pretty nasty stuff. A study in the early 1980s found that 25% of people who used DEET experienced some kind of negative side effect. This might be as relatively benign as skin irritation or numb lips. It could get as bad as rashes, headaches, dizziness, nausea and difficulty concentrating.
Duke University pharmacologist, Mohamed Abou-Donia, recommended against human use when, after a study exposing rats to DEET, he found that at a certain level of exposure, they lost a significant number of brain cells and experienced behavioral changes.
Alternative to DEET
We have been recommending a particular homemade bug spray alternative for years at my clinic and with patients, friends and family members. We’ve found it to be highly effective and the people we’ve shared it with have agreed! Here it is:
- 1/2 c. Natural Witch Hazel
- 1/4 c. Apple Cider Vinegar
- 1/4 c. distilled or boiled water
- [optional] 30-50 drops of essential oil (eucalyptus, mint, lavender, citronella, tea tree, or cinnamon)
- glass spray bottle
- Combine all ingredients into glass spray bottle
- Avoiding eyes, mouth, and nose spray on portions of skin
Symptoms of Lyme
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, life happens. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms and you are worried, please get in touch with me and we can discuss testing and treatment options. According to the CDC:
3 to 30 days after tick bite:
- Fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes
- Erythema migrans (EM) rash:
- Occurs in approximately 70 to 80 percent of infected persons
- Begins at the site of a tick bite after a delay of 3 to 30 days (average is about 7 days)
- Expands gradually over a period of days reaching up to 12 inches or more (30 cm) across
- May feel warm to the touch but is rarely itchy or painful
- Sometimes clears as it enlarges, resulting in a target or “bull’s-eye” appearance
- May appear on any area of the body
A month or more after the tick bite:
- Severe headaches and neck stiffness
- Additional EM rashes on other areas of the body
- Arthritis with severe joint pain and swelling, particularly the knees and other large joints.
- Facial palsy (loss of muscle tone or droop on one or both sides of the face)
- Intermittent pain in tendons, muscles, joints, and bones
- Heart palpitations or an irregular heart beat (Lyme carditis)
- Episodes of dizziness or shortness of breath
- Inflammation of the brain and spinal cord
- Nerve pain
- Shooting pains, numbness, or tingling in the hands or feet
- Problems with short-term memory