It’s a fact of life in Wisconsin: summer brings bugs and bugs bite. If you’re spending any time outside, it’s just a part of summer. But beware – some insect and spider bites can lead to more than just red welts. St. Mary’s Hospital Emergency Department physician Dr. Matt Lazio shares advice on how to prevent insects from biting and how to treat common insect bites when they occur.
Recently, local entomologists – or experts on insects and insect activity – reported that tick populations in our area have exploded. In fact, some testing sites in the Madison area reported ten times the number of ticks this spring compared to numbers collected last year.
These tiny parasites burrow into the skin of mammals and feed on their blood. Some types of ticks can pass on illnesses like Lyme Disease to their hosts.
“Preventing a tick from biting you takes a bit of preparation,” says Dr. Lazio. “From wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts to spraying on insect repellent, prevention starts before you leave your house.”
DEET is the most recommended repellent, particularly if you’re heading to the Northwoods or other dense wooded areas. Look for a repellent that contains 10-30% concentration. The higher the concentration, the longer the repellant should last.
“To get the most out of your insect repellent and avoid any potential skin reactions, remember to spray the repellent on your clothes,” says Dr. Lazio.
Another popular repellent is Permethrin. You can buy clothing that is already coated in the repellent to help ward off insects that might bite.
For the best tick bite prevention, pair your insect repellant with proper clothing. The less exposed skin you offer, the less likely you’ll end up with an imbedded tick.
“And make ending the day with a ‘tick check’ of everyone in the family a part of your routine,” says Dr. Lazio. “A tick found and removed within 24 hours is not likely to transmit disease or other infections.”
Start your tick check immediately after coming indoors. Remove your clothing and shake it out to catch any ticks that may have hitched a ride on your sleeves, collar or shoes. Help other family members check themselves thoroughly, including behind their ears and in their hair. Then make sure everyone takes a shower or bath immediately.
If you do find an embedded tick on a family member or pet, don’t panic. And don’t trust old wives tales about covering the head with nail polish or burning it’s rear end with a hot matchstick or cigarette.
“The best way to remove a tick is with tweezers,” says Dr. Lazio. “Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull straight up.”
This quick, simple motion is likely to pull the tick out intact. If part of the tick remains embedded, call your doctor for advice on removing it or to schedule an appointment to have it safely removed.
Another pest making news recently: mosquitoes. While Zika Virus is in the news this season, it’s important to remember the mosquitoes that carry the virus are not native to Wisconsin. But that doesn’t mean the pesky insects that do reside here don’t carry the potential for more than an itchy bite.
West Nile Virus is more likely in our area. But, Dr. Lazio says it’s still pretty rare for people to contract the virus. In fact, only four Wisconsin residents had confirmed cases of West Nile in 2015.
“In the event you do contract West Nile Virus, there is a good chance you won’t even know,” says Dr. Lazio. “Approximately 80 percent of people never show symptoms. If you do experience symptoms, see your doctor right away.”
Symptoms of West Nile Virus include:
• Body aches
• Skin rash
• Swollen lymph nodes
Severe symptoms require immediate medical attention. These include:
• Stiff neck
Even if you don’t contract an illness from a mosquito, their bites can be irritating. Try using over-the-counter antihistamines or creams to relieve itching and pain relievers to help with swelling. Spiders Most spiders aren’t dangerous to humans, but their bites can cause a reaction.
“A spider’s bite generally won’t be dangerous because the toxins they produce are pretty weak,” says Dr. Lazio. “But, if you experience a more severe reaction with swelling, pain or infected-looking tissue you should see your doctor.” If medical care is needed, bring the dead spider with you if possible. A bite that gets infected or creates necrotic – or dying – tissue could need antibiotics.
It is still important to know there are three species of venomous spiders – Brown Recluse, Black Widow and Hobo Brown spiders. While the Brown Recluse and Hobo Brown spiders are not native to Wisconsin, there have been some reports of Black Widow spiders found in the state. Bites from these spiders can cause serious reactions. If you believe you’ve been bitten by one a venomous spider, seek immediate medical attention.
Another group of insects to watch for: fleas.
“Fleas can pass along life-threatening illness like the Bubonic plague, Brucellosis and Endemic Typhus,” says Dr. Lazio. “While the risk can be low, these pests spread easily and quickly from animals to humans and, even if they don’t make you sick their bites can be irritating.”
Fleas can live in backyard grasses and often infest pets first. Make sure your dogs, cats and other pets that spend time outdoors receive proper, routine flea prevention.
If fleas do infest your home, get cleaning:
• First bathe your pets with flea-killing shampoo or ask your veterinarian for flea-killing medication;
• Remove and wash all bedding, rugs and other fabrics immediately in hot soapy water, sealing into plastic bags for 12 hours after washing to kill any remaining eggs;
• Vacuum all furniture, rugs, floors, and carpets to suck up any fleas, pupae, larvae and eggs daily until the infestation is over;
• To kill any eggs that remain deep in your carpeting or upholstery, consider using Borax or diatomaceous earth on your carpets by brushing the powder into the carpet or upholstered furniture and do not vacuum it up for a week or two.
In general, stings or bites from flying insects like yellow jackets, bees or hornets only cause local reactions like pain, swelling or itching. But, for some, allergic reactions will cause serious symptoms.
“Allergic reactions can range from severe nausea or vomiting to lightheadedness or even anaphylaxis – which can include hives, throat swelling, difficulty breathing and shock,” says Dr. Lazio.
For mild reactions, remove the stinger, clean the area with soap and water and then treat the symptoms at home. Ice packs offer some pain relief and may delay the absorption of any venom.
“Other helpful treatments include taking oral antihistamines like Benadryl to stop the itchy reaction and pain relievers like ibuprofen to help with swelling and pain,” says Dr. Lazio. “For serious reactions, head to the nearest Emergency Department.”
Emergency Department providers can administer IV antihistamines, epinephrine, steroids and other medications to stop the reaction. If you have a known allergy and are able to use an EpiPen when the reaction starts, still head to the Emergency Department. Medical staff will follow up with additional care.