Ticks, Mosquitos and Fleas Are Making More Americans Sick

If you’re planning to spend more time outside this summer, be sure to protect yourself against bites from ticks, mosquitos and fleas. 

Illnesses spread by these pests more than tripled in the United States, from 27,000 cases in 2004 to 96,000 diagnoses 2016. Nine new germs spread by ticks and mosquitos were discovered. Diseases spread by ticks make up more than 60 percent of all cases. The most commonly diagnosed conditions spread by these bugs in 2016:

  • Ticks carry Lyme disease and ehrlichiosis/anaplasmosis. Ticks also carry babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, rabbit fever, Powassan virus and the recently discovered Heartland virus.
  • Mosquitos spread West Nile virus, Zika and dengue.
  • Fleas carry the plague — yes, the same bacteria responsible for the Black Death during the Medieval Age — but the infections are rare and can be treated with antibiotics.

The threat of contracting these conditions should be taken seriously. Changes in the environment and our lifestyles are increasing our exposure to pest-borne conditions.
 

Why More Of Us Are At Risk

 What’s causing this rapid spread of tick and mosquito infections? Many factors are at play, from changes in weather patterns, to more forested areas in the suburbs, to increased global travel. More people are being exposed to ticks and mosquitos and are at increased risk of infection.

  • Warmer weather. Hotter temperatures year-round mean ticks are now thriving in parts of the country that once were too cold for them. Mosquitos love heat waves, which can trigger outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases.
  • More forests. Ticks are moving into new territories, including California, and states in the Northeast and upper Midwest. As forests in the suburbs expand and thicken, the populations of deer and rodents that carry ticks are growing. The popularity of deer hunting has dropped and foxes, which hunt rodents, are disappearing.
  • Travel. People are traveling the globe more than ever before for work and leisure. You could be infected with a mosquito-borne disease in one country and unknowingly carry it back to the United States. If you are infected and a mosquito bites you, the next person (or animal) it lands on may also become infected. This is how viruses such as Zika and chikungunya spread into the Americas.
  • Lack of vaccines. There are no vaccines or treatments for most illnesses carried by ticks and mosquitos. 

Local and state health departments are the first line of defense against the ticks and mosquitos that carry dangerous diseases, but they often are underfunded and cannot fully track and control the pests. Mosquito control efforts, for example, are very expensive and often do not prevent outbreaks.

Health agencies do, however, work to educate the public about using bug repellent and wearing protective clothing.

 

Protect Yourself from Tick- and Mosquito-Borne Diseases

There are steps you can take to keep your family and yourself safe from the illnesses carried by ticks and mosquitos. 

The three easiest actions you can take are to use bug repellent specifically formulated to keep away ticks and mosquitos, to wear protective clothing and to check all family members — including pets — for ticks after walks or hikes.
 

Bug Repellents

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend the following bug sprays.

For mosquitos, use bug repellents that list one of the following as the active ingredient: 

  • DEET
  • Picaridin
  • IR3535
  • Oil of lemon eucalyptus
  • 2-undecanone

To keep away ticks, you will need a bug repellent with a higher dose of active ingredient than mosquitos require. Fewer active ingredients keep away ticks, so be sure to use a bug repellent with one of these active ingredients:

  • DEE
  • Picaridin 
  • IR3535 

Adults can apply bug repellent on children older than age 3 but should avoid putting it on a child’s hands or near the eyes and mouth. Babies less than 2 months old should not use bug repellents. 

When using sunscreen, apply the sunscreen first, followed by the repellent.

Protective Clothing

One of the best ways to avoid tick, mosquito and flea bites is to cover your skin with clothing. If you will be walking or hiking, wear:

  • Long pants 
  • Long Sleeves
  • Shoes and socks
  • Tucks pants into socks 
  • Wear a hat 
  • Use a bandana to cover your neck
  • Pull long hair back into a pony tail

You can purchase clothing that is treated with permethrin, an insecticide that repels ticks and mosquitoes. You can also buy permethrin and spray it on your clothes. Studies show that even just spraying closed shoes with permethrin can be effective at keeping ticks and mosquitos at bay.

Learn to avoid the places that ticks enjoy. Ticks thrive in the woods and often nestle on downed logs. They prefer grassy fields and bushy areas. You can prevent ticks from jumping onto you by walking in the center of a trail instead of along the edges.
 

10 Tips To Ward Off Ticks and Mosquitos

Ticks and mosquitos still can deliver a bite, even if you use bug repellent and cover up exposed skin. That’s why it is important to be vigilant about keeping these pests away from your home and yard. Try these tips:

  1. Prevent and remove standing water any where near your home. 
  2. Ensure that all windows are fitted with proper screens.
  3. Use air conditioning when possible.
  4. Keep grass and bushes trimmed.
  5. Check all clothing for ticks after spending time outdoors.
  6. Check your body for ticks, looking behind knees, in skin folds, behind ears, on the scalp, and near the genitals.
  7. Check pets for ticks, too.
  8. If find a tick, use pointy tweezers to grab the tick and pull it straight out. 
  9. Use an electric fan to keep mosquitos away from outdoor sitting areas.
  10. Use mosquito netting around bedding when camping or if you don’t have screens on your windows.

Learn more about the rise in infections from ticks and mosquitos.

Pest-borne infections require the expert care of infectious disease specialists. Your primary care physician can help link you with The Christ Hospital Health Network's comprehensive inpatient and outpatient care for acute, chronic and unusual infections. Looking for a primary care physician? Schedule an appointment online today.

​Dr. Desai specializes in Internal and Geriatric Medicine and is dual board-certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine in both fields.