Serious Illnesses From Bug Bites Are Rising. Here’s How to Protect Yourself

If you plan to spend time outdoors this spring and summer, be sure to pick up some extra mosquito and tick repellent.

Honestly, even if you’ll be outside only long enough to get to your car, you still may want to stock up on bug spray.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that the number of illnesses in the U.S from mosquito, tick and flea bites tripled between 2004 and 2016.

If that doesn’t make you reach for the repellent, how about this?

During the same time span, nine new germs carried by mosquitoes and ticks were newly discovered or turned up in the U.S. from other countries by hitching a ride on luggage, produce or whatever else the wee buggers could dig their tiny feet into.

According to CDC spokesman Benjamin Haynes, they include mosquito-borne viruses Zika and chikungunya and tick-borne viruses Heartland and Bourbon.

New tick-borne bacteria that cause Pacific Coast tick fever and a variant of Lyme disease were also among the nine new germs discovered.

All it takes is one bite from an infected flea, tick or mosquito to come down with Zika, West Nile virus, Lyme disease or one of the other diseases they’re known to carry, experts say.

While not everyone who picks up one of the illnesses becomes visibly sick, you can still pass the germs on to other people with serious consequences. For instance, many people with Zika virus have no symptoms, but it can cause birth defects in an unborn child.

If Zika sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the virus that prompted the CDC to warn pregnant women not to travel to areas with a known risk of Zika exposure.   

Whether travel advisories will be issued again this year is anybody’s guess.

“We cannot reliably predict what will happen this summer,” Haynes says. “However, we do know that thousands of people will get sick as a result of mosquito, tick, and flea bites this summer.

“If you are traveling at home or abroad, make sure to pack and use insect repellent and check before you pack,” Haynes recommends. “Don’t let a bite change your life.”

The CDC says you can avoid flea, tick and mosquito bites by using an EPA-registered insect repellent that contains at least 20% DEET, a chemical that repels insects.

Repellents that contain one of these active ingredients can also protect against mosquito bites but may not be effective against ticks or other bugs:

  • Picaridin
  • IR3535
  • Oil of lemon eucalyptus
  • Para-menthane-diol
  • 2-undecanone (methyl nonyl ketone)

If you aren’t sure which insect repellent is right for you, check out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s online search tool to help you decide.

You can also keep insects at bay by:

  • Covering as much exposed skin as possible when you’re outside.
  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants tucked into your socks to keep ticks from latching on.
  • Taking preventive measures to keep your pets free of fleas and ticks.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She enjoys telling readers about affordable ways to stay healthy, so look her up on Twitter (@lisah) if you’ve got a tip to share.