Every New Englander is familiar with the summertime whine of mosquitoes — and the itch of their bites. But getting bitten can be more than just uncomfortable. You don’t have to visit a tropical locale to experience an infectious disease from a bite. You could be at risk for insect-borne diseases without even leaving home, says Sandra Wozniak, M.D., Chief of Emergency Medicine for Beverly and Addison Gilbert Hospitals.
Although diseases like Zika and yellow fever get the most press and can be a concern if you’re traveling to Southeast Asia or the Caribbean, they’re not as much of a threat in the Northeast. However, residents of Massachusetts and New Hampshire are at risk for certain other diseases carried by insects. Here are some of the most common vector-borne illnesses to look out for in the northeastern United States:
- Eastern Equine Encephalitis: This is a rare disease, but it’s a little more likely to occur in the Northeast, as well as in states on the Gulf Coast and along the Great Lakes, particularly from late spring to early fall. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus can spread to people when they’re bitten by an infected species of mosquito, and the first symptoms show up three to 10 days after a bite. Symptoms include stiff neck, high fever, headache and fatigue, but encephalitis — inflammation of the brain —is the most serious complication. The disease tends to worsen quickly and can potentially cause the infected person to go into a coma
- Lyme Disease: This illness is spread by infected deer ticks, which are very common in Massachusetts, especially in coastal and wooded areas. Lyme disease can often — but not always — cause a red bull’s eye or donut-shaped rash where the tick bite occurs. You may also experience flulike symptoms such as fever, headache, stiff neck, swollen glands and fatigue. Because the tick usually must be attached for 24 hours to pass on the bacteria, removing it promptly will reduce your risk of becoming infected.
- Tularemia: This bacterial disease can be spread through the bite of an infected tick. You can also catch tularemia after touching, handling or eating an infected animal, having contact with water or soil that has been contaminated by an infected animal or being bitten by an infected animal, such as a rabbit or squirrel. Symptoms of tularemia depend on how you were infected with it, but can include skin ulcers, eye irritation, sore throat, breathing difficulty and fever.
- West Nile Virus: Most people contract West Nile virus through a bite from an infected mosquito. Although most people with the disease don’t exhibit any signs, some can develop flulike symptoms, as well as high fever, headache, neck stiffness, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, numbness and paralysis. In severe cases, West Nile virus can cause encephalitis and meningitis.
Preventing Insect-Born Diseases
“The best treatment for mosquito- and tick-derived illnesses is prevention,” said Wozniak. Take these steps to protect yourself and your family from unwanted complications during your summer excursions.
- Check yourself, your children and your pets daily for ticks, especially after spending time outdoors.
- Remove ticks by using tweezers to pull them straight up out of the skin. Don’t leave any part of the tick behind.
- Use chemical insect repellents with DEET or permethrin.
- Cover your skin with light-colored protective clothing to ward off ticks and make any that attach easier to spot.
- Eliminate mosquito breeding grounds by removing standing water around your home.
Talk to a Lahey Health physician about how to keep your family safe from insect-related issues this summer.