6 Insects that can make you sick this summer
August 1, 2019
If you’re planning on spending some time outdoors this summer, a few unwanted guests may join you.
Mosquitoes, ticks, and other stinging insects can definitely put a damper on your fun in the sun.
Before you plan your next adventure in nature — or attend another backyard barbecue — familiarize yourself with the most common (and a few uncommon) bugs that can present hazards to your health. Learn how to prevent bites and stings before they happen, too.
It’s just not summer without mosquitoes. Just as you’re setting into your evening routine, so are they. That makes for some uncomfortable summer nights.
Classified under the Diptera order, there are more than 3,000 known varieties of mosquitoes around the world.
These blood-sucking insects are easily identifiable by their buzz and itching bite.
However, sometimes mosquito bites are more than just an annoyance.
Numerous serious diseasesTrusted Source are communicated by mosquitoes, including malaria, West Nile virus, Zika, and Japanese encephalitis. Mosquito-borne diseases vary largely by geography and by type of mosquito. If you’re in North America, there’s little real worry of transmission.
Other complications, including allergic reactions, can occur.
“Skeeter syndrome,” while rare, is a serious allergic reaction associated with mosquito bites.
“Skeeter syndrome is a name we give to patients who develop pretty significant swelling with insect bites, in particular mosquito bites,” said Dr. Kara Wada, MD, an assistant clinical professor of medicine in the division of allergy and immunology at Ohio State University.
“Those reactions tend to be quite large, larger than the typical inflammatory response that you get in the skin… They also can have some whole-body or systemic symptoms,” she said.
Those symptoms can include low-grade fever and an overall unwell feeling or malaise.
Ticks are arachnids found throughout the United States. Different varieties are known to inhabit certain geographic regions. They’re also known carriers of serious diseases, like Lyme disease and Powassan virusTrusted Source.
When dealing with ticks, knowledge is key. That means understanding which ticks inhabit the geographic region where you live, how to identify them, and knowing which diseases they’re able to transmit.
“The most important thing that people need to know is that different types of ticks carry different germs. It’s really important to know that, because the media makes everyone believe that ‘tick’ is sort of a generic word and that any tick is a possible vector for any germ that you have heard about, and that’s not true at all,” said Thomas Mather, PhD, the director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease, but who’s better known by his nickname, “tick guy.”
For example, only the black-legged and Western black-legged tick varieties are known to transmit Lyme disease. But if you live in a region where the Lone Star tick lives, you should be aware of other potential complications, like alpha-gal allergy.
Alpha-gal allergy, or “red meat allergy” as it’s sometimes colloquially called, is believed to be triggered by the bites of Lone Star ticks. It causes the individual to develop an allergy to galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, a carbohydrate found in the cells of non-primate mammals, including cows, sheep, and pigs.
Bees and wasps
It’s quite frequent for us to see patients with allergic reactions to stinging insects. So this would be honeybees, wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets,” Wada said. “These are the particular insects that are most common for humans to have the potential to have a life-threatening allergic reaction when they are stung.”
Unlike mosquitoes and ticks, the main health risk of stinging insects comes from a serious allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is identifiable by a cluster of symptoms, including light-headedness, fainting, hives, and swelling of the face and lips.
Severe anaphylaxis requires emergency medical intervention, including the use of injectable epinephrine (commonly known by the brand name EpiPen). It may also require hospitalization if symptoms don’t resolve.
Not all ants bite, but if you live in a region where fire ants are common, be aware that, like bees and wasps, they present the potential for an allergic reaction and anaphylaxis in some people.
Native to South America, fire ants are believed to have migrated to the southern United States in 1918 on a cargo ship from Argentina to Alabama.
Like bee stings, injectable epinephrine is a powerful antidote to anaphylaxis caused by ant bites.
Triatomine bugs (kissing bugs)
espite its sweet name, this critter is anything but. And its excrement (poop) can be deadly.
Somewhat uncommon in the United States, kissing bugs are known to inhabit Central and South America. But they’ve been identified in 28 states across the United States and have been making inroads in places farther north, including as far as Delaware.
Kissing bugs feed on blood and take their name from their affinity for biting sleeping humans around the mouth and eyes. They’re capable of transmitting the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi through their feces. The parasite is responsible for Chagas diseaseTrusted Source, a serious illness known to affect the heart.
Chagas disease is associated with heart failure, stroke, arrhythmia, and sudden death.
Fleas are perhaps most well known for transmitting the bubonic plague, aka “the black death” that ravaged Europe during the middle ages. There’s little risk of the disease in the United States today.
However, these tiny pests, particularly Ctenocephalides felis, the “cat flea,” are still known to harbor dangerous pathogens.
“Cat scratch fever” isn’t just a great song to jam out to this summer. It’s actually the colloquial term for a disease caused by Bartonella, bacteria transmitted by cat fleas.
Bites from fleas are also known to trigger potentially serious allergies in addition to being generally itchy and annoying.
Prevention varies depending on the type of insect. Familiarize yourself with the particular insects and their associated pathogens where you live.
Unless you see what actually bit you, an illness can be difficult to diagnose and treat.
“There are all kinds of things that itch and look like bites, and there are lots of things that can cause them besides ticks and mosquitoes and kissing bugs,” Mather said.
In addition to trying to identify an insect, it’s also important to keep a timeline of the bite and the progression of symptoms, adds Wada.
As you spend more time outside during the summer months, there are some general tips you can use to keep yourself safe from biting and stinging insects.
“If you can get away with wearing long sleeves and long pants and covering up, that’s going to be quite helpful,” Wada said.
In addition, using DEET-containing insect repellants and clothing treated with permethrin can help ward off some of those most common critters out there.
If you have pets, be sure to check them for bugs if you’ve spent the day outdoors. It’s also smart, particularly if you live in an area with ticks, to inspect your body and clothing when reentering your home to ensure that you don’t bring any insects inside with you.
For bites, common over-the-counter remedies, including antihistamines and topical steroid creams like hydrocortisone, can help with itchy redness and inflammation.
But don’t be afraid to seek out a doctor or allergist if the bite doesn’t resolve or additional symptoms appear.
“If you were to have worsening of symptoms a few days in, or you’ve really been scratching at that particular bite and symptoms are worsening… that would be concerning to me that there might be infection, and you should have that evaluated,” Wada said.