Expert Advice

Is it possible for me to contract diseases from bug bites?

Depending on where you are and what types of bugs are present, you can contract a disease from a bug bite. For example, mosquitos can transfer a number of diseases, such as West Nile Virus, Chikungunya, Dengue fever or Zika, among others. Within the United States, West Nile Virus is a major threat, but it has been decreasing in prevalence, with only 1,923 cases occurring in 2015, compared to 9,862 at its peak in 2003.

The Zika virus has recently affected people in several areas of South and Central America and was expected to move north. In response, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emergency Operations Center moved to a level 1 activation — the highest level — in February. Zika, which has been connected to microcephaly, a birth defect, in babies, is only believed to present a danger to pregnant women.

Another commonly encountered bug that can transfer diseases to humans is the tick. Ticks can carry a number of diseases, including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI). For these diseases, the most common symptom is a rash. Lyme disease, the most prevalent tickborne illness, is often characterized by a red, circular, target-shaped rash. Keep in mind that the tick has to be attached to the skin over 24–36 hours before transmission of Lyme disease occurs. When discovered, the tick must be fully removed, including the head.

Regardless of where you’re traveling this summer, if you will be around bugs that bite, you’ll want to protect yourself. One of the easiest ways to protect against bug bites is with insect repellents that contain at least 20 percent DEET. Check the labeling of the repellent before you purchase it to make sure it has DEET. Products without DEET can protect against mosquito bites, but they can be ineffective against ticks or other bugs.

Another easy way to protect against bug bites is to wear jeans or pants and long-sleeved shirts when you can. If you are going on a hike or are hanging out in the wilderness, you’ll want to have as little exposed skin as you can handle. Additionally, try securing your sleeping area (whether it’s a tent or a hotel room) as much as possible so bugs can’t enter. If you are camping in a particularly buggy area, consider purchasing mosquito nets to sleep under.