The dog days of Summer 2014 are a little less dog-ish and a little more bug-ish than usual. The cool and wet weather has contributed to alarming increases in the bug populations, especially those that carry and transmit disease. According to the Boulder Daily Camera, city-wide mosquito spraying lowered the risk index, but failed to prevent 17 new cases of West Nile Virus in 2013. The percentage of mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus is higher in 2014, however only two cases of human infection have been reported in Colorado thus far.
But you don’t want to drench yourself or your kids in DEET just to enjoy a picnic at the lake. It is well known that DEET is just as toxic to humans as it is repellant to insects. “Between 10 and 15% of DEET applied to the skin surface is excreted in the user’s urine…” and has been linked to “reports of convulsions in children using DEET.” (Forgey, Wilderness Medicine: Beyond First Aid 5th ed. pg. 161-165) Direct application of DEET should therefore be minimized or avoided completely.
In addition to avoiding going out during dawn and dusk when mosquitoes are most active, there are some highly effective and completely non-toxic solutions to repelling bugs. Any natural spray, lotion or otherwise containing citronella, eucalyptus, cinnamon, lemongrass, peppermint and clove oils will be an effective repellent – my favorite is Burt’s Bees. The Mountain People’s Co-Op in Nederland offers a wide variety of DEET-free bug repellents. Natural repellents require frequent application, especially over sunscreen or if they have been rubbed off with perspiration. You can also try applying any DEET containing repellents on your outer layer of clothing or mosquito netting for extra protection.
Fortunately, we have an abundance of spiders whose deftly woven webs will trap mosquitoes with other flying pests. However, there are some web-weaving species in our midst whose bite carries powerful toxins: black widows (latrodectus mactans) and brown recluses (loxosceles reclusa).
Most spider bites do not puncture deeply enough to inject venom and may only appear as a small red spot. If you have been bitten by a black widow, however, symptoms may include muscle spasm, rigid abdomen, restlessness and excruciating pain. While most healthy adults will survive with pain and swelling that abates after a few days, children, elderly and those with impaired kidney and immune function should seek immediate medical attention.
Apply ice to the bite to reduce swelling and slow the spreading venom. A suction device called the “Sawyer Extractor” may be able to draw out some of the venom if applied immediately. Once the venom enters the bloodstream it spreads quickly and may require an anti-venin specific to Latrodectus Mactans or Loxosceles Reclusa. Anti-venins are difficult to come by and very expensive – and are only given in extreme cases.
I have personally seen the damage caused by a black widow bite as an apprentice to a professional herbalist and homeopath on the Western Slope. The patient was a strong and otherwise healthy farmer in his mid-50’s who met a black widow in the outhouse (no joke)! Beside the discomfort of not being able to sit down for a couple weeks, the wound site developed significant necrosis (the skin became black and caved in) and he experienced intense pain. He had no other symptoms, however, and refused to go to a doctor. We visited him twice a day applying a poultice of freshly grated potato to draw out the toxins and giving him a homeopathic preparation of Latrodectus Mactans that works similarly to the anti-venin developed by Merck and Company. Within a week the local tissue damage stopped spreading and his pain had lessened considerably.
Of course, folk remedies should never take the place of qualified professional medical treatment – but I was really impressed to see our simple, natural treatment really work. The key to successful treatment of spider bites – whether you are using conventional medicine or alternative therapies – is 1. to keep the wound extremely clean by changing bandages several times a day and 2. pain management with prescription or over-the-counter analgesics.
Finally, we come to the issue of ticks. “More vector-borne diseases are transmitted in the United States by ticks than by any other agent.” (Forgey, pg. 163) According to the CSU Extension office website, there are more than 30 species of ticks in Colorado, and Colorado Tick Fever is the most commonly transmitted disease. Tick season usually subsides mid-July, but this year ticks are more persistent due to the favorably cool and wet weather. Avoid tall grassy areas while you are hiking and always conduct a head-to-toe tick check before you go home.
Despite the aforementioned cautionary tale regarding the use of DEET, it has proven to be 100% effective against ticks, by far the most serious insect threat to Colorado outdoorsmen. But the combination of loose clothing with frequent application of any non-toxic repellant will at least reduce your risk of exposure.
So, what to do if you find a tick with its head buried under your skin? First, here’s what you DON’T DO: DO NOT use hot wires, matches, glue, fingernail polish or Vaseline. Don’t scrape it off with a credit card (that’s the trick for a stuck bee stinger). If you try to burn the tick or pull the tick’s body it may vomit the germs it is carrying right into your bloodstream, or the head will detach and will still be stuck in your skin. NONE of those methods are effective in removing ticks and may increase your risk for Colorado Tick Fever. The only tried and true tick removal method is to use a pair of fine point tweezers or Tick Pliers (also sold commercially as “The Original Ticker Off”, “Pro-Tick Remedy” or “Tick Nipper”), grasp the skin around the tick and pull straight outward removing the tick and a chunk of skin. (It’s actually not as painful as it sounds!)