Beat the bites: How to avoid pesky ticks and mosquitoes

May 22, 2017 Allison Milionis

In April, we spoke with one of our doctors at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Wash., about the benefits of camping, as well as some related safety issues. One of the topics we covered was ticks: how to avoid getting bit and what to do if you find one on you, a friend or your pet.

Now that hiking, camping and travel season is in full swing, the information on ticks shared by Jacob Deakins, M.D., bears repeating. It’s also a good time for a refresher on how and why to avoid mosquitoes and their itchy bites.

Avoid ticks and tick-borne diseases

For being so tiny, ticks wield a lot of power over our collective psyche. It makes sense that we want to avoid them. Ticks insert their “mouths” into our skin to suck blood. Ick! And they carry dangerous diseases.

In the United States, the most common tick-borne disease is Lyme disease, caused by the bite of an infected black-legged tick, also known as a deer tick. Adult female deer ticks are about the size of a sesame seed with reddish hind bodies and black dorsal markings. Males are slightly smaller than females and are solid dark brown. Although deer ticks are associated with the Northeast, in fact, they live throughout the central and eastern U.S. Their creepy cousins, Western black-legged ticks, live west of the Rocky Mountains. They also carry Lyme disease.

The deer tick’s favorite hosts are deer and rodents, but they’ll hitch a ride on a human passerby if given the chance. For this reason, it’s important to wear long pants, sleeves and long socks when walking through forests and fields.

After returning home or to your campsite, do a self-check or have a friend inspect your skin for ticks. Carefully inspect areas around the head, neck, ears, under your arms, between your legs and behind your knees. Be sure to inspect your children and canine companions, as well. Look for what may appear to be a new freckle or speck of dirt.

If you find a tick, here’s how the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend you remove it:

  • Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible.
  • Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don't twist or jerk the tick. This can cause the mouth parts to break off and remain in the skin. If that does happen, remove the mouth parts with tweezers. If you’re unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
  • After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
  • Dispose of a live tick by submersing it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet.
  • Never crush a tick with your fingers.

There is a 24-hour window where the risk of a tick passing Lyme disease is very small. Still, other pathogens can be passed within that timeframe so it’s best to avoid ticks if possible and remove them immediately when found. Visit the CDC website for more information and resources about how to prevent a tick bite and tick-borne diseases.

You can’t run from these tiny vampires

Mosquitoes are hungry opportunists that have looked and behaved the same for almost 80 million years. One persistent mosquito can ruin a barbeque or a good night’s sleep. And if that relentless critter is one of three species of mosquitoes that carries disease, it can also be deadly. Mosquito-borne diseases cause millions of deaths worldwide every year. A disproportionate number of those affected are children and the elderly in developing countries. 

It’s virtually impossible to throw a mosquito off your trail. Not only do they sense body odors and temperature, but they also track movement and the carbon dioxide that humans and other animals naturally exhale.

The female mosquito is the biter. After she locks onto her target, she stabs two needle-like tubes into the skin of her victim. One tube injects saliva to numb while the other sucks blood into her body, where it becomes a source of protein for her offspring. Surprisingly, neither male or female mosquitoes derive nutrients from blood – they eat nectar and other plant sugars.

How do you keep them away?

Swatting and sidestepping a mosquito’s effort to land only makes you more attractive. Remember, movement is one of the ways they track their victims. Any air flow above 1 MPH makes it difficult for mosquitoes to fly, plus it will help dissipate body odors and carbon dioxide. You’ll have better luck avoiding unwanted mosquito attention by standing in a breezy spot. If you’re near an outlet, plug in a fan or two. Also, avoid bodies of water during dawn or dusk when the wind tends to die down and mosquitoes come out to feed. 

Wear tightly-woven clothes. Mosquitoes can’t penetrate a tight weave, especially tightly-woven synthetic fibers. Look for garments that offer sun protection. These products have a tight enough weave to block a mosquito bite.

The color of your clothes also matters. During the day, wear lighter clothes, which makes it more difficult for mosquitoes to see in daylight. At night, choose darker colors for camouflage.

Use mosquito spray on your skin and clothes. CDC recommends repellents containing products, such as DEET, that are registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Although DEET is considered a highly effective mosquito repellent and safe to use, some studies have shown harmful effects.

A study out of Duke University found that frequent and prolonged DEET exposure led to brain cell death and behavioral changes in rats. Researchers concluded that humans should stay away from products containing DEET. Still, other studies have shown that while a few people have sensitivity to DEET, most are unaffected when they use DEET products on occasion and as instructed on the label.

If you want to avoid DEET and other synthetic repellents altogether, there are a number of plant-based options. Oil of lemon eucalyptus, which been approved by the CDC and a common ingredient in many commercial products, is one known repellent. Natural oils such as soybean, coconut and palm, and some essential oils (lemongrass, peppermint, clove and cedar, to name a few) have shown to repel mosquitoes to some degree. And according to one study, the repellent, Bite Blocker, “can achieve similar repellency to DEET, providing 7.2 hours mean protection time against a dengue vector and nuisance-biting mosquitoes in one study.” Bite Blocker contains glycerin, lecithin, vanilla, coconut oil, geranium and soybean oil.

You can find other natural products available with similar success rates online or in stores.

Avoid mosquito-borne diseases

In the past year, we wrote a number of posts about the Zika virus, which is spread primarily by the bite of an infected mosquito. This virus is part of a family of viruses that cause other diseases, such as dengue fever, yellow fever and West Nile viruses. A Zika infection during pregnancy can cause a birth defect called microcephaly and other severe brain defects. It’s also linked to miscarriage and stillbirth, as well as the debilitating Guillain-Barré syndrome. 

The tips we offer above can help protect you from a mosquito bite and a mosquito-borne illness. You also will find heaps of information on the CDC website about how to protect yourself and your family from Zika virus, travel updates, maps and more.

We covered a lot of ground in this post, and there’s a lot more studies and information available about ticks, mosquitoes and ways to avoid them. Before heading outside this summer or traveling to parts of the U.S. or world where these critters are more prevalent, know how to protect yourself and your health.

How do you keep the bugs away?

Share your tips below.

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