Avoid getting bitten: Mosquitoes and ticks can cause serious illness

May 31, 2022
Leslie Tengelsen, PhD, DVM, state public health veterinarian, Division of Public Health

Now that school is out and long summer days beckon us all into the outdoors, it’s time to be aware of potential infections that can be transmitted through the bite of ticks and mosquitoes. A bite from either can cause a disease that might seriously impact your health. It’s important to do everything you can to avoid getting bitten.

Tick- and mosquito-borne diseases can vary by region in the United States. What are the insect-borne diseases we should be aware of in Idaho?

That is a great question – before you head into the outdoors, you should learn more about the diseases associated with local ticks and mosquitoes. In Idaho, public health officials are most concerned about West Nile virus from mosquitoes and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, tick-borne relapsing fever, and tularemia from ticks.

Is Lyme disease in Idaho?

We often hear about Lyme disease in the national media, but cases in Idaho are rare and generally occur in people who traveled to other areas of the country where infected ticks have been found. The tick that carries Lyme disease is not known to live in Idaho. Even so, cases are tracked by where a person lives rather than where they were infected, and Idaho will report cases every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is an excellent resource if you want to learn more about the risks of insect bites by geographic region.

What are some of the symptoms of the diseases ticks and mosquitoes transmit in Idaho?

Most of these diseases cause a fever, and some can cause a rash. For example, most people infected with West Nile virus will not have any symptoms, but about 20 percent or so will develop illness that could be anywhere from mild to serious and may include fever, headache, body aches, a rash, and swollen glands. Some people might develop serious illness infecting the brain or spinal cord. People most at risk are those older than 50 and those who have underlying medical conditions or weakened immune systems.

For those with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, symptoms can include fevers and chills, headaches, confusion, and a rash that may begin a few days after the other symptoms start.

To learn more about tularemia and tick-borne relapsing fever visit these CDC websites: https://www.cdc.gov/tularemia/index.html and https://www.cdc.gov/relapsing-fever/index.html

What are the best ways to prevent tick and mosquito bites?

  • For both mosquitoes and ticks, use insect repellent approved by the EPA on exposed skin and clothing. Follow instructions on the product label, especially if you’re applying it to children.
  • Avoid mosquito bites by staying indoors or wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts if you’re outside, particularly during dusk and dawn hours when mosquitoes are most active. Ticks will be more visible if you wear light-colored clothing.
  • Check for and remove ticks from your clothing, body, hair, and pets when you have been outside.
  • Make sure window and door screens in your home and camper are in good repair so mosquitoes can’t get in.
  • Talk to your veterinarian about tick prevention products for your pets. Ticks can hitch a ride on your pet and end up in your home.

When should you seek medical attention?

If a tick is biting you, use a fine tweezers or notched tick extractor to remove it as close to the skin as possible without squeezing or crushing it. Disinfect the bite site and wash your hands with soap and water. If you have any symptoms listed above in the hours or days after a tick bite, see your medical provider immediately. Early treatment reduces the risk of complications. Idaho does not test ticks for microbes that can cause disease.

There is no specific treatment for West Nile virus, but hospitalization and treatment of symptoms may improve the chances of recovery for those with severe infections. There is no vaccine for humans, but there are several choices for horses, who, like humans, can become seriously ill if infected.

Leslie Tengelsen, PhD, DVM, is the state public health veterinarian in the Division of Public Health. She has worked for the department since 1998 and focuses on zoonotic disease prevention.

Resources:

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The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is dedicated to strengthening the health, safety, and independence of Idahoans. Learn more at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov.