Bug Off!

Bug Off!

Ticks 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."

DEET in 20 percent to 30 percent concentration is effective in preventing ticks from attaching, but you can get even better protection by using a DEET product on your skin and wearing clothes treated with Permethrin, a chrysanthemum-derived chemical that kills any bugs that aren't repelled by DEET. 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 Tick Nipper ($6; 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.

Fire ants
Fire ants don't bite: They sting. In fact, their stings are similar to bee stings and can trigger serious allergic reactions in some people. "Like Africanized honeybees, fire ants attack in a very organized and aggressive manner when their nests are disturbed," says Sonnen. They're most common in the Southern states but are migrating rapidly.

Prevention Tips: Fire ants make their nests in little dirt mounds. If you see one of these mounds, steer clear and call local pest control. Fire ants won't bother you unless you bother them, but if you do step into their territory, a small army of ants is likely to respond. "It's not uncommon to see people come into the emergency room with 60 to 100 stings," says Sonnen. "It's frightening how quickly they mobilize to defend their nest."

If you get stung: Fire ant stings produce an intense searing sensation, which can last for a few days. A day or so after the sting, pustules or blisters will develop. Clean the area to prevent infection and apply cold compresses and hydrocortisone cream to reduce inflammation. You can alleviate the itch by taking an oral antihistamine or using topical aloe vera. See a doctor if you experience hives, swollen lips, or labored breathing, or feel faint. Fire ants aren't usually life-threatening, but a large number of simultaneous stings can be deadly.

Bed bugs
Bed bugs resemble over-toasted sesame seeds. They're dark in color, move quickly, and dine exclusively on the blood of humans and other animals, which they like to drink while their victims are asleep. They were absent from the United States for so long that some thought they were a myth. "Nobody is quite sure why bed bugs have made a comeback," says Daniel R. Suiter, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Georgia. But no one doubts they're back-with a vengeance. Fortunately, bed bugs, unlike mosquitoes, aren't known to transmit blood-borne diseases from one victim to another. They're not likely to make you sick, just miserable.

Prevention tips: Because bed bugs hide out in the cracks and crevices of bedrooms, especially mattress tufts and other hard-to-reach places, keep bedroom furnishings clean and welldusted, wash bedding and mattress pads, and repair cracks in walls and around windows and doors. Be very selective about any used furniture you bring into your home, especially upholstered furniture.

If you find bugs in your home:
This is a job for a professional, says Suiter. First, he says, send a sample (yes, he means a dead bed bug) to a department of entomology for identification (most state flagship universities have one). Second, interview a few pest control professionals and choose one with significant experience eliminating bed bugs. Complete eradication can be both time-consuming and costly-and it's rarely accomplished with a single visit.

Head lice
Lice suck blood from scalps and take on the color of the hair they infest. They run rampant in day-care centers, schools, and camps-anywhere kids come into close contact with one another. Kids' playful behavior (combing each other's hair, swapping hats, helmets, and hair accessories) provides ample opportunity for lice to spread from head to head. These little buggers can survive for only a few days away from a human body.

Prevention tips: If you have small children, and particularly if they're in school or day care, do weekly head checks. Look for white or grayish crawling forms (about the size of a sesame seed) and yellowish-white eggs (known as nits) attached to hair shafts close to the scalp.

If your or your child gets head lice: Over-the-counter remedies are usually effective. Look for ones containing the insecticide Permethrin, such as Rid Lice-Killing Shampoo ($11; www.ridlice.com). They're safe and effective and may continue to kill newly hatched lice for several days after treatment. If over-thecounter remedies don't work, ask your doctor for a prescription treatment. But don't go overboard with insecticide: Use as little as you need to get the job done.