Warm weather has finally arrived in the Upper Peninsula, luring us outdoors to gardens, beaches and campgrounds. Mosquitoes, ticks, black flies, and other pesky bugs have been waiting for the thaw, too. While most of these little creatures are just nuisances, some can carry diseases like Lyme disease or West Nile Virus.
Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria spread by black-legged ticks, commonly called deer ticks. In about 80 percent of cases, the first sign of Lyme disease is a large bull's-eye shaped rash - a red spot with a red ring around it - that can take about two weeks to show up. Whether or not a rash is observed, Lyme disease can cause flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, body aches and fatigue.
Antibiotics usually are effective at treating Lyme disease, especially when it is diagnosed early. Undiagnosed and untreated, long-term infection can lead to chronic fatigue, severe joint pain and other debilitating neurological conditions. Fortunately, removing ticks within the first 24-48 hours prevents most infections.
West Nile Virus is a disease carried by mosquitoes and can also cause symptoms that mimic the flu, although most people who are infected will have no symptoms or a very mild case. Severe cases of West Nile Virus - less than 1 percent - can inflame the brain and nervous system and may result in coma, paralysis, and even death. There is no treatment or vaccine for West Nile Virus.
Both diseases are present in the western Upper Peninsula. While the most common tick in U.P. woods, fields and swamps is the larger wood tick, the tiny deer tick that carries Lyme disease is found in Gogebic and Ontonagon counties, and is spreading through the rest of the Upper Peninsula. West Nile Virus is widespread, if sporadic, across most of the United States, including Michigan.
One of the most effective ways to prevent bug bites is to wear long sleeves, long pants and a hat when you are in buggy areas, especially around dusk when mosquitoes are most active. Light colored fabrics make it easier to spot bugs. Avoid scented shampoos and perfumes than attract insects when you hit the hiking trail or backyard barbeque.
As we all know, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and in the case of ticks and mosquitoes, much less than an ounce of bug dope will usually do the trick. Several choices of insect repellent exist, so choose based on your needs and preferences. Remember to check the labels for guidelines for safe usage on children.
DEET, the common go-to repellent, works great at keeping most bugs from biting. Many people apply a little DEET on their clothing, especially around their collars and on hat brims, to avoid applying repellent directly to the skin. If you don't like the feel or smell of DEET, try using a picaridin-based repellent. They can be a little harder to find, but don't have the smell of DEET and provide nearly the same level of protection. Repellents wear off over time, so remember to reapply as directed.
For some extra protection, look for permethrin-based repellents. This chemical is used to treat gear and clothing and will kill bugs on contact. It's weather resistant, and clothes can even be washed several times before the permethrin loses its potency. You can't spray it on your skin like other repellents, but the combination of permethrin-treated clothing and a repellent offers a lot of protection from bugs. It's non-toxic and dries clear and odorless. You can find permethrin in the camping sections of most stores.
If you are worried about exposure to chemicals, a variety of "natural" repellents are sold. They may not be as effective, but are the preferred choice of many people.
It is also important to check yourself after outdoor activities and remove ticks. This will greatly reduce your risk of getting Lyme disease. Pay special attention to your ankles, underwear, ears and hairline. Having someone help check you for ticks will help you find ticks in hard to see areas, like the back of your head.
Cleaning up your property will also reduce your risk of bug bites. Mosquitoes breed in standing water and ticks like unkempt areas. Trim, mow, and maintain your land to keep ticks at bay and remove any standing water to stop mosquitoes from breeding. Don't let these little pests take a bite out of your summer plans.
Editor's note: Michael Mallek is an emergency preparedness assistant at Western U.P. Health Department.