Protect Yourself Against Bug-Borne Diseases

Bad news for those of us who love spending summer days lazing in the grass: The number of people getting diseases transmitted by mosquito, tick and flea bites has more than tripled in the United States from 2004 to 2016. Those critters cause what are called “vector-borne diseases”—the bug is the vector spreading the germ—including dengue virus, West Nile virus, malaria, Lyme disease, Zika virus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and plague. Yikes.

The problem is growing in part because of our more interconnected world, the CDC says, as international trade moves goods, and bugs along for the ride, from place to place and infected travelers spread germs. Warmer weather also amplifies the threat.

So what are you supposed to do about it? No, you don’t have to stay inside. Just take some precautions to lower your risk.

Here are some recommendations, compiled from the CDC and an interview David Weber, MD, MPH gave to The New York Times. Dr. Weber is medical director of UNC Hospitals’ Departments of Hospital Epidemiology and Occupational Health Services and an infectious diseases expert.

1. Wear an EPA-approved insect repellent whenever you’re outside.

Make sure your kids are covered, too, with a few caveats: babies younger than 2 months shouldn’t wear any insect repellent, and children under 3 years old shouldn’t use products containing oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) or para-menthane-diol (PMD). Read labels carefully to make sure your repellent is effective against both mosquitoes and ticks.

2. Cover your skin, especially if you’re going to be in the woods or outdoors for a long period of time.

That means long sleeves, long pants and closed shoes with socks. You can even tuck your pants into your socks for added protection. You can also buy clothes that has been pre-treated with an insecticide called permethrin, or you can treat the clothes yourself.

3. Avoid tall grassy fields, where ticks live.

“Ticks don’t fly and they don’t jump,” Dr. Weber told The Times. “They live on grasses, and when a human goes by, they leave the grass and attach themselves to the human.”

4. After you come inside, check for ticks on yourself, your kids and your pets.

The CDC has instructions on how to safely remove a tick. Make sure to give your pets their flea and tick medicine as recommended.

Dr. Weber offered this advice: “Do a full body check by looking in a mirror, and check hidden spots: behind the knees, the waist area, the bellybutton. That’s where they like to hide.”

5. Minimize entry points.

Check your screens on windows and doors for small holes that bugs could enter through, and don’t leave doors and windows open without a screen. Dump out standing water that may collect in your yard in planters, toys, birdbaths or trash containers—that’s where mosquitoes lay eggs. If you have air-conditioning, use it.

Infographic pointing to the body for different types of insect protection

Talk to a doctor about summer health. Find one near you.