Bugs That Bite People: Fleas, Mosquitos, Ticks, and Bedbugs
Creepy Critters That Invade Our Personal Space
This Earth upon which we live is populated by all manner of animals and creatures other than ourselves. Some of them, we welcome into our homes and call pets, others we fear and avoid, and still others, we seldom think about, until that day when they cross our paths in unpleasant ways.
These last, of course, are various bugs which may at one time or another invade our homes, hitchhiking in on our pets' fur or our own clothing. Or we may encounter them while out enjoying nature on vacation. This is the most likely way to come across these pests.
I refer, of course to the most common offenders, fleas, mosquitoes, ticks, and bedbugs.
Fleas are a problem for any warm-blooded animal, whether it is a dog, cat, or person. There are "dog fleas" and "cat fleas," but in point of fact, the fleas aren't that fussy, and will land upon and bite whichever warm-blooded animal happens along.**
These little pests are a huge health problem, for they can spread many kinds of diseases in addition to the simple annoyance of their itchy bites.
**(Usually mammals; birds are not ordinarily affected by fleas, though they can get lice.)
Fleas Can Leap Great Distances
Prevention and Elimination
Of all the pesky critters, fleas are the smallest, hardest to find and catch. In addition, they have a hard outer shell or exoskeleton, so simply brushing them away or swatting them won't kill them. They have to be either smashed or destroyed by abrasive powders that work their way through the outer protective shell, causing the flea to dry out and die.
Poison sprays of course, work much faster, but have added health hazards of their own.
If you have a flea infestation, you must treat your whole house and yard, or the problem will continue, as the tiny, invisible flea eggs can become trapped in your carpet, or your pets' fur, or disgustingly, even your own bedding.
- CDC - NCEH - Healthy Housing Reference Manual - Chapter 4 Figures
NCEH article shows flea life cycle
Fleas Don't Travel Alone
Another problem from fleas is the transmission of parasites, such as tapeworms. (Bear with me--this gets disgusting.)
In this case, the flea is again the intermediary species. Worm segments, which contain eggs, are shed in animal feces; and herbivores such as rabbits, may then ingest them with food, thus becoming infected, and the cycle continues, either as the rabbit passes segments, or as a predator such as a large cat consumes the rabbit. In the case of pet cats, a mouse or rat is the most likely prey victim to cause the problem, because mice and rats are likely to have fleas, and flea larvae also eat the worm eggs.
It is easy to check your pets for this problem--the shed segments are visible, and look like miniature grains of rice stuck to the stool. If seen, the vet can provide a de-worming medication that will solve the problem.
To prevent recurrences, keep track of your pets--don't let dogs hunt, and keep cats indoors, where they are much less likely to encounter mice or rats to eat.
What Does a Flea Bite Look Like?
We are all familiar with these pesky critters, whining and humming around our ears on warm summer evenings, whispering "cousin, cousin, cousin..." as we swat them, and yell, "Go away! I'm not your cousin!"
The list of diseases carried by these pests is long, and includes yellow fever, malaria and several types of encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), all of which can be fatal. Although mortality has been greatly reduced due to modern drug treatments and vaccination requirements, none of these are illnesses you want to have.
Mosquitoes also carry heart worms which can easily infect dogs. Dogs must be tested while young, and kept on preventative medication year-round. Cats can also become infected, but according to my veterinarian, they are not as much a problem in cats, as they are not really able to 'grab hold,' so the cat is what is known as a 'dead-end' host, just as we humans are.
The most recent headline-grabbing disease to be attributed to the mosquito is West Nile Virus. It causes flu-like symptoms, and can be mis-diagnosed. Blood cultures are required for correct diagnostic work. Dengue (pronounced as 'Den-gee') Fever is another dangerous disease transmitted by the mosquito.
Mosquito Feeding; Magnified Image
What Does a Mosquito Bite Look Like?
Preventing Mosquito Bites
Prevention with sprays, lotions or other repellents such as citronella candles on the picnic table, is the best protection against mosquito-borne diseases.
The time-honored advice of wearing clothing with long sleeves, and long pants is somewhat debatable, as these annoying insects can bite through thin cloth.
There is ongoing research to discover what makes one person more attractive to mosquitoes than any other person.
The jury is still out, but I have a theory--they may be able to "smell" blood types, and prefer one over another. I've had bites, but they have not been a huge problem for me, while my father, who had the more rare blood type AB used to get "eaten alive" as they say. and likewise for my husband, who has a negative blood type.
For prevention around the house and yard, make sure to empty, and then store upside-down, any and all containers that may hold water, for mosquitoes lay their eggs, and the larvae hatch in standing water. Water in constant motion, such as a river, or your decorative fountain, is not a problem, but standing water is. Some of the things that can collect water include old tires, buckets, plant pot saucers, ashtrays, and wading pools.
Ticks look a little bit like small spiders, except that they have only six legs, not eight. At first, they may appear to have eight legs, but the front pair are actually feelers, not legs.
Ticks can jump directly onto your skin or clothing when in a brushy, wooded area, or transferred on the coat of a pet dog or from another animal.
Diseases carried by ticks are several, but the ones most of us have heard about are Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme Disease. Of these two, the former is more likely to cause fatalities, and treatment with antibiotics must be started within five days of the onset of symptoms.
Lyme Disease, on the other hand, is less likely to be fatal, but can cause lifelong recurring flare-ups. These include debilitating joint pain, and make it difficult to get around.
Ticks Look a Little Bit Like Spiders
Preventing Tick Bites
This is where the advice about long sleeves, long pants, and high-topped shoes or boots that leave no gap between pants and shoes comes well into play.
While mosquitoes can and do bite through clothing, a tick must have direct skin contact to do its dirty work.
- CDC Features - Stop Ticks
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Stop Ticks - When you’re outside this spring and summer, prevent tick bites and reduce your risk of tick-borne disease by following these
What Does a Tick Bite Look Like?
How Do You Get a Tick Out?
Unlike fleas and mosquitoes, which "bite and run," ticks embed themselves into the skin, and must be removed as quickly as possible.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), recommends against using any of the folklore remedies, such as coating it with petroleum jelly, nail polish, or other substances, as these act by making the tick detach, but not quickly. The object is to get rid of the invader as quickly as possible.
So, the recommended procedure is to grasp the tick as close to its head, which is the part buried in the skin, as possible, using clean, fine-tipped tweezers. Then, pull upward slowly and steadily. Jerking it can cause the tick to break in half, leaving the mouth parts embedded in the skin. Not a desirable outcome.
Then, clean the area well with soap and water, alcohol, or an iodine scrub; whichever is available. Wash your hands well, and be sure to dispose of the tick where it will not contact anything else. Down the toilet is the best method.
Advise your doctor if a tick has bitten you and ask what you need to do next. You may have to monitor the area, or even be seen quickly.
These pests are becoming more widespread, due to the increase in international travel. They are nearly invisible to the naked eye, but can be seen if you look carefully. Their profile is very flat, which is why they are hard to see.
They like to hide in small crevices, and get their name from their habit of hiding in the seams of mattresses and bedding. They are most commonly found in areas where many people share the same space, either together or in sequence, such as hotel rooms, college dorms, and the like. They easily and willingly hitch rides to new places on or in clothing, suitcases, pets, etc.
While they are not a disease-carrying culprit, they are a major annoyance, and can cause a maddening itch in those who are allergic. The reason they like beds and other upholstered furniture is that they are attracted to the carbon dioxide we breathe out. Those locations keep them handy to us for feeding on our blood while we sleep. Ugh!
The best prevention is cleanliness. Vacuum often, including between furniture cushions and mattresses.
What do Bedbugs Look Like?
How Do You Treat All These Bites?
The main lingering problem of all insect bites is the itching. It can range from mild to maddening.
There are several old stand-by products on the market, such as calamine lotion, that "pink stuff" our parents used to slather on to us for anything from bug bites to measles.
A more modern itch remedy is a hydrocortisone cream, or an anti-allergen cream such as Benadryl. These are creams that rub in completely, and don't leave splotchy, powdery pink residue all over the skin, as did the old-fashioned calamine lotion. (I remember being nearly completely covered in the stuff the year I got the measles!)
Good to have on hand when traveling is 'sting-eze,' shown below. It's a good addition to a first aid kit, and is small enough for purse or pocket, so you can treat immediately. I swear by it, but it's good to keep a tube with you; the effectiveness is best when used as soon after being bitten as possible.
This is an awesome remedy to which I was introduced one year when vacationing in Massachusetts. It even works fairly well on bee stings.
I keep one at home, and one with my camping gear. It doesn't have an expiration date!
The majority of these nasty critters are active in the Spring through Fall, with Summer being the time of year they are most prevalent.
Prevention is the best treatment, and in the case of mosquitoes and ticks, can involve treating your clothing as well as your person with a suitable repellent.
Getting sick is never any fun, and getting very sick from a preventable bug bite is even less so. Make sure your outdoor gear includes fresh repellents for yourself and your pets. And please, don't put poisons on your pets for fleas and ticks. You can read more about this in my article on safely keeping these pests off your pets.
There are other bugs that bite out there, such as chiggers. Chiggers, however, are not harmful to humans, and with the exception of a specific type found only in Asia, do not transmit disease. However, they do cause a horrible, itchy welt, and that misery can last upwards of a week.
Bedbugs are the exception; they don't care what season it is!
The prevention remains similar for them all. There is no need for panic--just awareness and calm preparedness.
If you plan on being in the great outdoors for any length of time, especially out in the woods, or fields, then you really should apply a repellent product.
There are many brands available, but the experts always mention to use one containing the ingredient known as "DEET."
These are found in various forms, from lotions to spray-on types. Choose what best suits your needs for the planned activity and your personal preferences.
What if a Bite Gets Infected?
Most bites subside and go away on their own with no further attention than keeping the area clean. With the exception of diseases affecting the entire body that may be transmitted, especially by mosquitoes, bites rarely become infected at the site of the bite or sting.
When an infection happens, it is usually mild, and probably because of scratching at the intense itching these bites may cause. Scratching may break the skin, allowing dirt and bacteria to enter, thus causing the problem. Wash with soap and water, apply an antibiotic ointment and bandage to keep clean. Check daily. If the infection does not go away after a day or two, or worsens, see your doctor right away.
Scratching a maddening itch is difficult to resist, especially for children, so keeping a soothing anti-itch remedy on hand is a boon to their health and your sanity.
© 2011 Liz Elias