When I traveled with my family as a kid, we all placed bets on when my sister would get bitten, stung, or otherwise blood-sucked. My mother dutifully sprayed bug repellent on each of us before we headed outdoors, and most of my family returned unscathed. But my sister Michelle always came back swollen and inflamed. Sometimes, the bites were so bad she needed medical attention and a cortisone shot. And it wasn't just mosquitoes that bugged her: Michelle is also allergic to bees, wasps, and other insects.
Some people are just irresistible to arthropods, says Daniel R. Suiter, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of entomology at the University of Georgia. Whether you're a bug magnet or an occasional victim, you risk more than just itching, swelling, and pain when bitten. Many insects carry debilitating diseases like malaria and West Nile virus. To avoid becoming a bug's lunch, it helps to know the facts and myths about the most common flyers and crawlers-and the best defense against them.
Once temperatures hit the mid-60s, mosquitoes are out-and ready to bite. As carriers of diseases like malaria, yellow fever, encephalitis, and West Nile virus, mosquitoes are responsible for more human deaths than any other creature. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), confirmed cases of West Nile virus in the United States have risen from 62 in 1999 to more than 4,000 in 2006. But even virus-free mosquitoes cause itchy bites.
Prevention tips: Mosquitoes are drawn to water, dark colors, sweat, and blood. Remove standing water (including your pet's water bowl), which is where female mosquitoes lay their eggs. Stay indoors at dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are more abundant. When you do go outside, wear long sleeves and loose-fitting pants in light colors. Dark clothing retains more body heat-and the hotter and sweatier you are, the more likely you are to get bitten. Spraying repellent on your skin and clothes confuses mosquitoes so they don't know you're food.
Try chemical-free products like Beat It! ($9; jadeandpearl.com), made with citronella, eucalyptus, lemongrass, and sweet orange; soy-based Bite Blocker Bio UD ($9; www.drugstore.com); and All Terrain Herbal Armor Spray Insect Repellent made with citronella, soybean, peppermint, cedar, lemongrass, and geranium ($9; rei.com). According to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency, repellents containing lemon oil or eucalyptus oil offer similar protection to those with low concentrations of DEET but may require more frequent applications. (Note: Check labels carefully for safety guidelines when using any kind of insect repellent, even the botanical formulas, on children.)
If you get bitten: Clean the area and apply hydrocortisone cream to reduce inflammation. It's hard to resist, but don't scratch the area: It only prolongs the itch and can lead to scarring. See a doctor if bites swell up dramatically (an indication of an allergic reaction), or if you develop fatigue, sore throat, headache, high fever, confusion, muscle weakness, or other flu-like symptoms.
Found in backyards, in the woods, and at the shore, these tiny bloodsuckers lurk on blades of grass, waiting for an unsuspecting host to wander by so they can hop on and attach to the victim's skin. Peak tick season runs from April to November in the Northeast and November to April in the West. In addition to producing a nasty rash, ticks can transmit diseases including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which they've often picked up from previous victims like mice and other animals.
Prevention tips: Like mosquitoes, ticks are attracted to warm blood and the carbon dioxide that signals its presence. They love the warm, moist areas under your arms and near your crotch, says Michael P. Zimring, M.D., director of the Center for Wilderness and Travel Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore and author of Healthy Travel: Don't Travel Without It! (Basic Health Publications, 2005). Wear long sleeves and long pants in light colors so you can easily spot ticks and remove them before they become attached. Tuck your shirt into your pants, your pants into your socks, and wear boots rather than sandals. "As soon as you come indoors, take a shower and do a thorough tick-check," says Zimring. "Or have a significant other check." Ava Anderson's Natural Bug Spray made with eucalyptus, lemongrass, peppermint, rosemary, and catnip is formulated to repel mosquitoes, ticks and flies ($20; avaandersonnontoxic.com). You can also wear clothing treated with chrysanthemum-derived Permethrin. Check out ExOfficio's line of Permethrin-treated activewear at www.exofficio.com.
If you get bitten: To reduce the likelihood of irritation or infection, remove the tick completely as soon as you spot it. Use a pair of tweezers to pull it back slowly and to get the bug to release its head from your skin, or try a special tick-removing device, such as the Liberty Mountain Tick Key ($7; www.rei.com). Clean the bitten area with soap and water, and apply an antiseptic. In case infection develops, save the tick in a jar with a tight-fitting lid (so the tick can't escape) for an expert to analyze. Visit your doctor if you see a bull's eye of redness radiating out from the bug bite, which could be a sign of Lyme disease. Other symptoms of Lyme disease (and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which also merits medical attention) include fever, headache, and muscle or joint pain. The good news: A tick usually must be attached for at least 24 hours to infect you with either of these diseases.
Bees and wasps
These flyers come with a full range of stinging capabilities, depending on the species. While most bees die after they sting you, some wasps don't separate from their stinger and can zap you up to four or five times. The most aggressive are Africanized honeybees: They're slightly smaller than other honeybees, and while their venom is chemically the same, they attack in droves. "If you approach an Africanized beehive, you're not going to get stung once, you'll get stung several hundred times," says Sonnen. "The entire hive will actively pursue and attack you."
Prevention tips: Bees like bright colors and sweet scents. Skip the scented oils and perfumes, and leave sugary treats and beverages indoors. Never disturb a beehive or a swarm of bees-they're most likely to strike when they feel threatened. Contact a pest control company if you find a hive near your home.
If you get stung: If you respond quickly after being stung, you can actually remove the stinger before it injects all its venom. "The stinger that goes into your skin has a venom sac attached to it," explains Sonnen. Full injection of venom usually takes about a minute, but you can stop the process by flicking the stinger out with your fingernails or pulling it out with tweezers. Wash the area with soap and water, apply ice, and take an antihistamine and ibuprofen immediately to reduce pain and swelling. See a doctor right away if you have difficulty breathing or are stung several times. "You can go into respiratory distress from a sting and die if you're allergic and don't receive medical attention," says Suiter.