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Mosquitoes and Ticks: What's a Camper to Do?

By Laura Kimberly

A mosquito bite can lead to West Nile virus. A tick bite can lead to Lyme disease. DEET may cause itching and skin irritation. While many Sierra Club backpackers worry about the environmental impact of manufactured chemicals, the bigger risk to a backpacker’s health and safety are the insect borne illnesses. Insect repellents are one of the most important defenses against bites and disease, but they are best used according to directions and in combination with a range of strategies.

Mosquitoes transmit various illnesses. The most prevalent of those in the United States is West Nile virus and other forms of encephalitis. Statistics reported to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for 2008, show Texas was among the top five states with West Nile activity. While most people infected with the virus show no symptoms, up to twenty percent of those infected experience fever, headache, body ache, and nausea, and a few develop severe symptoms that last for several weeks and may endure permanent neurological effects. With no specific treatment, the disease can only be managed as it runs its course. Although West Nile affects only a few people, mosquito bites can cause swelling and discomfort and the whine of mosquitoes, as well as the itch, can keep you from your sleep. The remedy for West Nile, the itch, the whine, and the bite is to avoid them.

Ticks also transmit disease. Lyme disease is the most well known of the tick borne diseases. CDC data indicates Lyme disease is most prevalent in the northeast and north-central states, though Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas—frequent locations for Dallas Sierra Club outings—report a noticeable number of cases. Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), the most severe tick borne illness in the United States. Symptoms of Lyme disease include rash, fatigue, chills, fever, headache, and muscle and joint aches. The symptoms of RMSF include fever, nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, lack of appetite, and severe headache. Left untreated these diseases can develop into more serious medical problems. Ticks are creepy even without the disease and are best avoided and repelled.

The full line of defense against ticks and mosquitoes includes not only repellent and insecticide; it also includes a well selected camp site, appropriate clothing, and vigilance.

DEET is an insect repellent. Recent research indicates it deters insects because they do not like the smell. Current research reported in both Consumer Reports and The New England Journal of Medicine provides evidence that DEET is most effective at keeping insects at bay. DEET comes in varying strengths from ten percent concentration up to 100%. Generally speaking, the stronger the concentration, the longer it will work, though you can reapply the weaker formulations to achieve the same result. A concentration of at least 20% is recommended for protection from ticks. For safety, concentrations over 50% are not recommended. DEET has been well studied since the 1940s. It is not a carcinogen, but still can have adverse affects on users and on the environment and therefore should be used only as needed and according to directions. It is to be applied to the exposed skin, covering the entire surface available to insects. A hungry mosquito can find that spot that you missed! Do not apply to open cuts, under clothing, or with sunscreen (the chemicals in DEET and sunscreen react to increase one another’s absorption through the skin). DEET can dissolve some synthetic fabrics such as neoprene, nylon, and leather. Wash skin to which DEET has been applied before retiring. A repellent relatively new to the market, Pitcarin, may be as effective as DEET for a few hours of protection. Botanical repellents, such as citronella, eucalyptus, peppermint, lemongrass, and geranium are available in health food and outdoors stores. Many are effective for short periods of time, and can be reapplied to increase the duration of usefulness.

Permethrin is an insecticide. It deters insects because it kills them when they come in contact with it. Permethrin is intended to be applied to clothing, bed nets, tents, and other fabrics—not directly on the skin. Clothing, shoes, and bed nets are available in fabrics that have been treated with Permethrin. The EPA considers it a likely carcinogen and it is toxic to some fish and other animals. Take care to keep it out of the water supply. Wear Permethrin treated clothing only when exposed to insects.

Always carry an insect repellent when hiking and camping during active bug and tick seasons. Take other precautions as well to limit your exposure to insects and reduce the need for high doses or frequent applications of repellents.

Choose a good camp site. Mosquitoes are prevalent around stagnant water: lakes, snow melt, and marshy areas. They are most active at dawn and dusk. Camp away from lakes and marshes on higher, ventilated territory.

Cover up with loose, light colored clothing. Mosquitoes cannot bite through clothing that is thick and loose. To further block tick access to your skin, tuck your pants into your socks. Ticks are easier to spot on pale colors. In areas with heavy mosquito activity, wear a head net to protect your face. The best head nets are those that have a wire around the bottom to keep the netting from lying against your face.

When you are in known tick infested areas, check frequently all over your body for them including: on the scalp, in the belly button, behind the ears, under arms, between toes, and around private parts. If you find one, remove it immediately. Protecting your fingers with a tissue, bandana, or latex gloves, use fine pointed tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Pull it straight out with steady even pressure. Disinfect the site of the bite. Keep the tick, sealed in a plastic bag, for a few weeks in case you develop a rash or illness. It may help in the diagnosis of disease.

To reduce the sting of mosquito bites carry cortisone, antihistamine, or other anti-itch medications. Taking aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or an oral antihistamine will reduce the discomfort. Consult with your doctor or first aide guides for solutions best for you.

Some people, like me, are only mildly annoyed by mosquitoes and slightly creeped-out by ticks. For others, like my friend Arthur, who seems to be the proverbial mosquito magnet, the buzzing, biting bandits of blood take the fun out of the out of doors. Whether you are like me or more like Arthur, it takes just one bite from a disease carrying insect to become very ill. Protect your health by using bug repellents. Protect the environment by using them responsibly.

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