Bug-Borne Illnesses Are on the Rise—Here’s How to Avoid Them

Lyme remains a threat, while nine new diseases were discovered between 2004 and 2016.

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Medically reviewed in February 2022

While many bug bites cause only minor irritation, some can spread diseases like West Nile, Zika, dengue and Lyme disease. In fact, between 2004 and 2016, illnesses transmitted by ticks, mosquitoes and fleas—also known as vector-borne illnesses—more than tripled in the U.S., according to a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Upwards of 640,000 cases of vector-borne illnesses were noted, though the real numbers were likely higher, since infections often go unreported. Tickborne diseases alone doubled, and nine new germs spread by mosquito and tick bites were identified, including chikungunya and Heartland.

All in all, vector-borne illnesses account for more than 700,000 annual deaths around the globe, according to the World Health Organization, so preventing the spread is vital.

Protect yourself this summer
The CDC recommends that state and local health agencies take more action toward becoming better prepared for outbreaks. Their suggestions include implementing programs designed to test ticks and mosquitoes and track the spread of disease.

Health agencies are also encouraged to educate the public about ways to prevent bites. Start protecting yourself now by trying these tips to help stave off insect bites.

  • Wear insect repellent. Choose a repellent with at least 20 percent DEET. Repellents registered with the Environmental Protection Agency are safe and effective, even for pregnant and breastfeeding women. This tool can help determine the right one for you.
  • Know how to apply. During the summer, sunscreen and bug spray are often applied together. If using both, put on sunscreen first, wait until it has dried, and then apply insect repellent. Mosquitoes can bite though some clothing, so always spray on top of your clothes and never under them. Bug spray with DEET won’t damage cotton, wool or nylon, but you shouldn’t apply to spandex, rayon and other synthetic materials. Finally, avoid spraying insect repellent directly into your face. Instead, spray it into your hand and rub it into your face, neck and head. When applying it to children, spray it into your hand first before applying anywhere on the body. 
  • Wear protective clothing. Cover skin with clothing like pants, long-sleeve tops, socks and closed shoes, especially when venturing into densely wooded areas. Wearing permethrin-treated clothing and gear adds another layer of protection against bug bites.
  • Keep bugs out of your home. Make sure window screens are free of holes or gaps. If you can, use air conditioning instead of keeping windows open. If air conditioning is not an option or you are sleeping outdoors, cover your sleeping area with a mosquito net.
  • Protect your pets too. Talk with your veterinarian about flea and tick repellents for your pet. Check pets for ticks daily, especially if they go outside.
  • Stay Informed. Check the CDC website regularly for outbreaks and travel warnings. 

Spot the signs of vector-borne illness
Not all bug bites are preventable, even with the proper precautions, so knowing the signs of common vector-borne illness is important.

Lyme disease: Early signs of this tickborne illness include headache, fatigue and muscle and joint aches. Affected people may also experience a red, bullseye-shaped rash at the bite site. Left untreated, Lyme disease can lead to facial paralysis and arthritis, especially in large joints like the knee.  

West Nile virus: Most people—about 80 percent of those with the virus—will not experience any symptoms. Although uncommon, some symptoms include fever, headaches and body aches, rash, vomiting and diarrhea. In more serious cases, about 1 in every 150 people will experience brain or spinal cord swelling characterized by disorientation, neck stiffness, vision loss, paralysis or convulsions. 

Dengue: Dengue is a tropical virus that’s making its way into the U.S. through places like Florida and Texas. This illness is diagnosed when a high fever and at least two other symptoms—including headache, joint pain, rash or severe eye pain—are present. If these symptoms are accompanied by difficulty breathing, vomiting blood and severe abdominal pain, seek immediate medical attention.    

Zika: Most cases of the virus are symptomless, but some people may experience mild discomfort, like fever, rash, headache or muscle and joint pain that last for several days to a week. If you experience these symptoms and live in or have traveled to an affected area, see your doctor. This is especially crucial for pregnant women. Zika can be passed to a fetus, causing severe brain birth defects, including microcephaly.

Not everyone has the same symptoms, and some people experience none at all. If you have recently been bitten and begin to feel ill, it's best to get a doctor’s opinion.

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