Summer means mosquitoes and ticks—and the risk of getting bitten by one that carries West Nile virus or Lyme disease. And add a new worry this season headed to the U.S. from the Caribbean: A disease carried by mosquitoes called Chikungunya virus (ChikV), which can cause fever and severe joint pain.
So don't let your guard down while you're outdoors, says Ben Beard, Ph.D., chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's bacterial diseases branch of vector-borne diseases. "Weather patterns can have an impact on the length of the season for ticks and mosquitoes," he said. "But the reality is that people are at risk every year, from mid-May until the first frost."
So how do you keep yourself safe from the threat of insect-borne diseases this summer? Consumer Reports' tests over the years have found that some products, especially chemical-based insect repellents, can help keep away ticks and mosquitoes. But it often takes more than one approach to rein in backyard bugs.
Here are some steps you can take to control insects and what to do if they bite or sting you.
Mosquitoes: Manufacturers now sell mosquito traps that use fans, electric grids, or adhesive pads to capture and kill mosquitoes. The devices do kill some of them, but it’s unclear whether that translates into “a noticeable reduction in your mosquito population,” says Joseph Conlon, a retired Navy entomologist who consults with the nonprofit American Mosquito Control Association. Even less impressive are devices that use light, sound, or smell to lure mosquitoes. “I have pictures of the machines with mosquitoes standing on them,” he said.
Conlon also warns people about misting systems (yes, there are such things) that spray insecticides like automatic sprinklers. “That widespread use could breed resistance to pesticides,” he said.
Our safety experts also warn against using yard foggers, which spray repellent from a can. You might inhale the pesticides, including some compounds that might disrupt your hormone system and that have been linked to neurological, developmental, and other health problems.
Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of Consumer Reports' Food Safety and Sustainability Center, emphasizes that you're best off doing things that discourage mosquitoes from breeding in the first place.
Because they’re drawn to murky water, keep your yard free of containers filled with water, such as gutters, birdbaths, tires, wheelbarrows, wading pools, and swimming pool covers. Clear away ivy and decaying leaves, because mosquitoes like cool, dark places.
Other steps you might try include using LED or yellow light bulbs (read our light bulb buying guide) on your porch and around your house, and plugging in a fan when on your deck. Citronella, in candles or in the oil in tiki torches, is a mild repellent.
Ticks: They like tall grass and lots of shade. So keep your lawn mowed (read our lawn mower buying guide) remove leaves and other debris, and try to let as much sun into your yard as possible. Consider putting up a fence around your property to keep out deer and other large animals that can carry ticks. And don’t forget to check your pets for ticks after they have been romping in the yard.
Stinging insects: Keep garbage cans and picnic food covered, because bees love discarded food. Most bees and wasps will leave you alone if you don’t bother them, so don’t swat at them. Nests should be removed only if they are in high-traffic areas. If you can, wait until the fall or winter, when the nests are abandoned. If you need to remove them sooner, do it early in the spring, and early or late in the day when the insects are less active.
Insecticide powders or sprays may be necessary, but follow directions and keep pets and children away. Always wear head-to-toe protective clothing, and never remove nests if it requires standing on a ladder; call a professional instead. Traps with the chemical heptyl butyrate may help control bees.
Mosquitoes: When you’re out at dawn and dusk, wear long sleeves, long pants, socks, and closed-toe shoes. Avoid tight clothes (mosquitoes can bite through them), dark colors, and perfume or aftershave (both attract them). You can purchase clothes treated with the repellent permethrin, or spray it on your clothes (but never on your skin). Manufacturers say that one application lasts several weeks, but our tests of treated clothing a few years ago found that permethrin didn’t work well.
Ticks: When walking through wooded or grassy areas in the summer, wear the same clothes that ward off mosquitoes. Light-colored clothes are best, because that makes it easier to spot ticks.
Tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks. Inspect your skin when you go indoors, and use tweezers to gently remove any attached ticks. (Remove the whole body, including the head.) Ticks have to be on your body for at least 36 hours to transmit Lyme disease. For extra protection, toss your clothes into a clothes dryer to kill ticks that might be attached.
Stinging insects: Bees are attracted to strong scents, so if you have lots of them or wasps in your yard, or you’re headed to a picnic, avoid perfumed soaps, shampoos, and deodorants. And because sweat can anger bees, wash up before you head out.
Mosquitoes: Cool compresses and an over-the-counter steroid cream, such as hydrocortisone (Cortizone-10 and generic), can ease itching. Applying calamine lotion or dabbing on undiluted white vinegar might also help, says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser. See a doctor if you develop a fever, a headache, body aches, nausea, vomiting, swollen lymph glands, or a rash on your torso.
Ticks: Get medical help if you develop signs or symptoms of a tick-borne illness. In addition to the classic bull’s-eye rash of Lyme disease, tick-borne illnesses can cause chills, fever, fatigue, headaches, and muscle or joint pain. Prompt treatment with antibiotics usually cures infections and prevents complications such as acute arthritis and facial paralysis (with Lyme disease), difficulty breathing or bleeding disorders (ehrlichiosis), and widespread heart, joint, or kidney damage (Rocky Mountain spotted fever).
Stinging insects: If you’re stung by a bee, carefully remove the stinger. Cold compresses, hydrocortisone creams, and oral antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl Allergy and generic) can help ease burning or itching. You can take an OTC pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic), ibuprofen (Advil and generic), or naproxen (Aleve and generic).
If you’ve had severe reactions to insect stings, always carry a prescription epinephrine injector such as an EpiPen or a Twinject. And get medical help if inflammation and swelling extend well beyond the sting site.
A version of this article also appeared in the June 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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