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Ways to keeps bugs from crashing summer fun

by Doris Penner

Finally it’s summer, the time for barbecues and ball games, swimming and hiking—and mosquitoes, the ultimate party crashers. The long hours of light and warm temperatures serve not only to pull neighbours out of doors for block get-togethers and children for spur-of-the-moment basketball, it also makes the perfect environment for bugs to thrive and attack. How can we keep bugs at bay—at least lessen the impact of their annoying presence—and what is the best way to deal with bites when they occur?

It should be noted that in North America, there are few types of insects that carry poison, and none with venom that, if injected, is fatal. However, it is possible that an insect bite may cause an allergic reaction which, indeed, could be serious. For the most part the concern is the pain, itching and irritation from bites and stings.

There are two main classes of insects that tend to spoil summer fun—biting and bloodsucking insects that include mosquitoes, flies (black flies, sand flies) and ticks, and stinging insects that inject venom such as bumblebees, wasps (including yellow jackets) and hornets.

Prevention first

It’s always a good idea to look at prevention first, and while it might be impossible to obliterate the flying critters that bite and sting, there are things one can do to mitigate their impact. Very practical strategies are draining standing water from places you might overlook such as wheelbarrows, garbage cans, tarps and rain gutters. These are perfect breeding places for mosquitoes, our worst summer enemy. Keep grass in the yard mowed to destroy hiding places for all kinds of bugs including ticks. It makes sense to cover bare skin with long-sleeved shirts and long pants, not a pleasant thought when it’s hot, but bearable in the evenings when bugs are often at their worst.

To apply bug repellent or not to apply? For many people it’s a no-brainer—anything to avoid mosquito bites. Find one that is safe for your skin if you feel you must use one. Look for a repellent that has the EPA stamp which means the active ingredients have been reviewed for human safety. However, proceed carefully. For example, if you resort to a product with DEET which is effective against mosquitoes (but not wasps), use sparingly on exposed skin and keep away from the face. Never use with young children.

Even though one practices prevention, anyone living in Manitoba will be inflicted with mosquito bites. While spring was cool, current wet conditions and warm temperatures are creating perfect conditions for burgeoning bug populations. Since most bites from mosquitoes and flies are not dangerous, many individuals simply tough it out. However, there are many topical over-the-counter products that can be applied to soothe the skin and relieve pain and itchiness. They contain ingredients such as hydrocortisone, pramoxine and lidocaine and are labelled as “external analgesics.”

Paste with baking soda

If you want a more “natural” approach, look for “skin protectants” that contain ingredients such as colloidal oatmeal, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), and oils from various plants such as safflower, sesame, apricot and purslane. Note that a simple paste made with baking soda and water can be applied on bites for a soothing effect. Some people have found relief by bathing affected areas with salt water.

It should be noted that certain vitamins play a role in healing the skin after a bite. A diet high in vitamin C, for example, will speed up wound healing, and as an immunity booster can help prevent infection that may set in when a skin break doesn’t heal. Vitamin E as an oil can be applied topically to aid in healing as well.

While for the most part bug bites and stings are merely an irritation, one should be aware that occasionally an allergic reaction may occur, and medical help should be sought. For example, the West Nile virus is passed on by mosquitoes infected by feeding on the blood of infected birds, and symptoms such as fever, headaches, stiff neck, lack of coordination and body aches may range from mild to severe. Lyme disease is caused by the bite of a deer tick and may result in serious complications leading to paralysis. Look for signs such as fever, malaise and a circle rash around a centre (site of tick bite). A small percentage of people experience anaphylactic shock from the sting of a yellow jacket wasp. Once diagnosed, it is important they carry drugs to combat the venom.