As great as an afternoon in the woods can be, or a stroll at dusk with your family, you are never alone: Ticks and mosquitoes inevitably come along for the ride.
Are their bites just nuisances, bringing about rashes and maybe a relentless itch? What about notorious bug-borne illnesses, like Lyme, West Nile and Zika? UR Medicine Urgent Care physician Dr. Michael Kamali has the facts we all need to know.
Should you be worried?
Do local insects harbor serious disease? That’s a tricky question, because it depends on the bug. They could. But there’s a big gap between what’s possible and what’s probable.
The good news is that, in Upstate New York, bites from ticks and mosquitoes don’t often bring about Lyme or West Nile, and currently, all cases of Zika virus in the U.S. are travel-associated. That doesn’t mean the risk is nonexistent—just that it’s relatively small for our area. Still, there are simple, important steps you should take to protect yourself.
Let’s start with Lyme disease. Tick-borne bacterial infection can bring about a host of aches, pains, rashes, even neurological troubles in the gravest cases. Infected deer ticks, which transmit Lyme disease, can be found throughout New York state—but again, the risk of getting infected after a tick bite is much lower in our region compared to other parts of the state, like Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley.
That said, we’re smack in the middle of tick season. They become active when the weather stays above freezing, usually from April through November. The time of greatest concern is in late spring and early summer; these nymphal-stage ticks are small as a sesame seed, and difficult to see.
Some important things to note: Not all ticks are infected with Lyme. And, for a Lyme-infected tick to possibly pass along the bacteria, it needs to feed for at least 36 hours. The trouble is that many don’t feel the tick’s bite, so you need to vigilant about stripping down, showering and checking yourself after you’ve spent time outdoors—especially in areas with higher grass or leaf litter. Simple precautions help, too, like applying insect repellant (look for products with more than 20 percent DEET), sticking to the middle of trails, tucking your pants into your socks, and cycling your dirty clothes into the dryer for an hour on high-heat (to kill stowaways). Be sure to check over your dog, too, if he or she joined you on your hike.
What if you find a tick on you? Don’t panic. Grab a pair of fine tweezers and take hold of the insect’s mouth-area, then lift. Don’t smush the bug’s body. If the bug is engorged, or if you’re worried about incomplete removal, call your doctor. Early signs of Lyme disease to watch for may include: a bullseye patch emanating from the bug site, chills, fever, headache or a stiff neck. Click here to learn more from the New York State health department website.
What about West Nile?
It can be hard to predict our region’s risk overall for West Nile, but in recent years, it’s been minimal in our area compared to other regions of the U.S. Even so, we’ll have to wait and see; things tend to pick up around late August.
Would you know if you were infected?
You might not. Many people don’t have symptoms. Mild cases might give rise to a fever, headache or skin rash, and most “victims” recover completely. It poses a bigger threat to immune-compromised and elderly people; they suffer more severe disease. Extreme, rare cases might include convulsions, muscle weakness, paralysis and even dangerous infection of the brain (meningitis/encephalitis). Again, it’s uncommon. You can learn more at mosquito-transmitted sickness on the state health department’s website: www.health.ny.gov/diseases/
The same precautions mentioned earlier—bug spray, etc.—are useful. Make sure window and door screens are free of rips and tears, too. Rid your yard of stagnant water; it’s a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Change out water in bird baths. Watch for empty containers that collect rainwater, clogged gutters and swamp-like swimming pools.
Although the risk of local transmission of Zika virus is low, it’s important to be aware of this public health problem.
Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant should follow the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including avoiding travel to areas with Zika. If a woman must travel to an area with active Zika virus transmission, she should talk to her health care provider first and strictly follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during the trip.
So, with all these worries, what’s the takeaway here? Be cautious, but don’t be afraid. Don’t let the little critters bug you. Go outside and participate in all of the safe, healthy activities you enjoy. Take measures to protect yourself, check yourself carefully for bites or attached bugs, and call your doctor or come in to urgent care if you have concerns.
Michael Kamali, M.D., is chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at URMC. UR Medicine Urgent Care has convenient locations in Pittsford, Penfield, Henrietta, Greece, Spencerport, Farmington and Newark.