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Ticks, mosquitoes and fleas, oh my…

West Nile transmission cycle

CDC graphic displaying the mosquito to bird to mosquito to people West Nile transmission cycle

By: Military Health System Communications Office
Mosquitoes, ticks, fleas and numerous other pests form a family of creatures known as arthropods. They are with us year-round, and make themselves known in the hot months of the year, mainly June, July and August, when families, and especially children, stand the risk of being bitten.

“Exposure is a factor,” said Maj. Chelsea B. Payne, a physician in the United States Air Force and a chief resident of the Preventative Medicine program at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences. “In the summer, people will go camping and spend more time outside, but insect-borne illnesses—including Lyme disease and bites from fleas and mosquitoes—are preventable.”

“People don’t necessarily take the right precautions every time they go outside,” Payne explained. “Precautions include wearing protective clothing so the skin isn’t exposed, using insect repellants and avoiding walking through wooded areas. If they are sleeping where there is not a screened-in area, or if they are letting a lot of habitat overrun their yards, that might bring in more insects. Finally, avoid allowing water to collect around the home, like in bird baths or on a pool cover. Standing water is a place where mosquitoes breed.”

While insect-borne diseases differ depending upon the carrier, said Payne, mosquitoes, tick and fleas are among the most common pests known in the continental U.S., and are largely responsible for transmitting organisms to humans that can cause a range of mild symptoms or more severe illness.

“There are lots of interesting organisms that are transmitted around the U.S., some that we don’t even necessarily think about,” Payne said. “We still have cases [though few] of plague from the bacteria Yersinia Pestis, which is transmitted by the fleas of rodents. People don’t think about that—it is a very old organism.”

Payne said homeowners want to avoid a flea infestation because fleas are difficult to get rid of, not to mention carriers of potentially serious infections to pets and humans. Applying topical solutions, seeing a veterinarian regularly and ensuring the cleanliness of kennels and pet boarding facilities in the event of travel are methods for keeping a home flea-free.

“I think people underestimate fleas, but you don’t want to get them,” she added.

Symptoms of an insect bite might include pain and swelling surrounding the affected area. If a person acquires Lyme disease, caused by organisms transmitted by the diminutive deer tick, he or she may develop a rash that looks like a “bull’s-eye.” Other symptoms of Lyme disease include headache, fever, chills, muscle aches and in severe cases, long-term illness. Confirmed cases of Lyme disease have been on the rise between 1995 and 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Payne said getting bitten by a Lyme tick is more common in the summer months. According to CDC data, Lyme tick bites are most common in children under 10 and adults in their mid-40s, especially men. Safety precautions against ticks are much the same as those for mosquitoes, which transmit a variety of organisms, some more dangerous than others. Ticks are most common in the Northeast, but can be found in nearly every region of the continental United States. It is important to do a “tick check” on children since they are especially susceptible to bites. This check includes scanning arms and legs and looking through the hair and around the neck.


“If you ever find a tick, and certainly if you think it has been there for more than 36 hours, you would want to go in and be seen [by a medical professional],” advised Payne. “Most mosquitoes bite people for a meal and they can transmit an organism in the process. There isn’t necessarily a vaccine against a lot of those illnesses, so most of the time prevention is essential, like using insect repellent sprays.”

Payne said products containing the chemical DEET (diethyltoluamide) work well for people who plan to be outside for long periods of time. For those who prefer natural remedies, Payne said repellents containing lemon eucalyptus oil, which can last two to five hours, are a good option for adults and recommended by the Federal Drug Administration for children 3 years of age and older.

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