Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Will bug-eat-people world be even worse this year?
BY EDIE GROSS
THE FREE LANCE-STAR
No tick is a match for Dr. Minh Tran and his tweezers.
During the last few weeks, the Patient First physician has removed one to three ticks a day from visitors to his Fredericksburg-area clinics.
They often hitch rides on construction workers, landscapers and others who work—and play—outside, he said.
“Believe it or not, I just removed a tick from a 4-year-old patient a few minutes ago,” he said Wednesday morning. “She was not real happy.”
Who can blame her?
‘REALLY PECULIAR TASTES’
The bloodsucking hitchhikers normally show up in late April in these parts, but ticks and other bugs came early this year due to an unseasonably warm winter.
Tran said he’s been removing ticks from disgusted patients since March.
“These critters have no wings, no means to fly, but every time you go outdoors, they magically appear on your body,” Tran said.
What’s worse is they often migrate to places where you’re not likely to notice them immediately: on your scalp, upper back or underarms.
“They have really peculiar tastes,” he said.
THEY’RE HERE & HUNGRY
It’s too early to say whether a longer tick season will result in more reported cases of Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which are transmitted by tick-borne bacteria, said David Gaines, state public health entomologist with the Virginia Department of Health.
But there’s another complicating factor this year. The fall acorn crop was flimsy, which means the rodents who depend on those acorns also dropped in numbers, said Gaines.
That might sound like a good thing, but black-legged ticks feed on those rodents. And if the ticks can’t find rodents, they may go looking for people, he said.
“They’ll be out there, and they’ll be hungry,” Gaines said. “They’re going to bite whatever they can.”
Your best bet is to wear closed shoes, long sleeves and pants in wooded areas and to tuck the pant legs into your socks, he said. That way, as ticks travel from your shoes on up, they don’t find any exposed skin.
Tran also recommends wearing light-colored clothing so ticks are more visible.
Bug repellent can also help keep ticks at bay. Gaines recommends creams over sprays when it comes to warding off ticks.
DEET is one of the more common repellents on the market, but Gaines mentioned several others, including picaridin; BioUD, made from an extract of the wild tomato plant; IR3535, which is found in Avon’s Skin So Soft; 2-undecanone, which can be manufactured but is also found naturally in bananas, ginger, strawberries and wild tomato plants; and oil of lemon eucalyptus.
WATCH FOR WASPS, BEES
In addition to ticks, mosquitos and wasps also arrived early this year.
While you can steer clear of a wooded tick habitat, mosquitos can fly, so they’re harder to avoid, said Gaines.
Most folks know to empty containers of standing water, he said. But mosquitos can breed in hidden habitats too, like inside corrugated downspout extensions and internal drain trays within decorative flower pots.
Ultrasonic devices and bug zappers aren’t effective against mosquitos, he said.
Wasp stings tend to increase in late summer and early fall when the nests are more crowded and inhabitants are defending their queens, said Gaines.
But those nests could be much larger much earlier than usual this year, so outdoor enthusiasts should be careful, he said.
“If you stir up a hornet’s nest with 20 hornets, it’s not as bad as if you stir up a nest with 2,000 hornets in it,” he said.
Wasps won’t leave behind a stinger, but bees will, said Tran. It’s important to remove it with the blunt edge of a knife and apply a cold compress and hydrocortisone cream.
Be especially vigilant about stings near the nose, mouth, neck and eyes because inflammation can affect the respiratory system, he said.
Of course if you experience any serious reactions, like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or dizziness, seek medical attention, Tran said.
If you’re bitten by a tick, use a pair of tweezers and pinch the bug as close to its head as possible before pulling it straight out of your skin, Tran said. If you don’t have tweezers, try covering the tick with masking tape and peeling the tape back from your skin slowly, he said.
Don’t handle it with your bare hands.
If you’re worried about whether any of it was left behind, freeze the specimen and bring it to a doctor, who can make sure all its parts are accounted for, Tran said.
Do not use alcohol or a match to try and loosen the tick’s grip. You may cause it to salivate or regurgitate the bacteria-laden contents of its stomach into your bloodstream, which can make you sick.
Symptoms of Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever can show up as long as two months after a bite, Tran said, so it’s important to note on a calendar when you removed the tick. In addition, symptoms of ehrlichiosis may take a week or two to appear.
If you experience unexplained fever, fatigue, chills, a rash, joint or muscle pain, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, confusion, red eyes, a change in vision or a skipping heart beat, see a doctor, Tran said. Patients can still be successfully treated with antibiotics even if the bite occurred weeks beforehand.
Better than treatment, though, is prevention, Tran said. So keep your eyes peeled after you—and your pets—have been outside.
“Make a habit of when you go outdoors, come home, shower off and check yourself over,” he said.
PLANTS BETTER OFF THAN PEOPLE
A longer bug season doesn’t necessarily mean that farmers and gardeners are in for a frustrating summer, said Guy Mussey, an agent in the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Stafford County office, specializing in environmental horticulture.
“Yes, insects and pests will come out earlier but so are their predators, and the good guys as well,” he said. “Sort of a balance is going to occur.”
Insects that feed on people, like ticks and mosquitos, have a ready food source.
But insects that feed on plants are programmed to emerge when it gets warmer because that’s when the crops are ready, he said.
If those bugs come early because of the warmer winter and there’s nothing to eat yet, they could starve, driving the numbers down, he said.
“I would not expect things to be any worse this year than any other year,” he said.
Edie Gross: 540/374-5428