Friday, August 24, 2007

How to have an itch-free, disease-free summer: Avoiding West Nile virus and Lyme disease

Before you head out to your garden, lace up your hiking shoes or hop on your bike this summer, keep this in mind: Cases of infectious diseases spread by mosquitoes and ticks peak during the warmest months of the year.

Besides being an itchy nuisance, mosquitoes can transmit a number of diseases to humans, including West Nile virus. West Nile virus has spread across the United States in recent years, causing almost 4,300 cases of illness and 177 deaths last year alone. So far this year, more than 570 cases of West Nile virus have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including 19 deaths. Symptoms of West Nile virus include high fever, headache, neck stiffness, coma, tremors, numbness and paralysis.

Also of growing concern in the United States is Lyme disease, which is transmitted by ticks and is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States. Infected ticks can cause illness in humans and pets. Lyme disease symptoms include cognitive impairment, lethargy, joint pain, severe headaches, fever and fatigue. If that doesn't hit home, get this: President Bush, a frequent biker, was diagnosed with Lyme disease this year after he developed the characteristic bull's-eye rash.

But all this doesn't mean you should stay locked up indoors. Luckily, neither West Nile virus nor Lyme disease can be transmitted person-to-person. Following a few simple precautions can reduce your risk of contracting mosquito- and tick-borne infectious diseases while enjoying nature.

To prevent mosquito-borne diseases:
* Use insect repellent every time you go outdoors. The CDC reports that repellents containing DEET and Picaridin typically provide longer-lasting protection than others. Always follow the warning labels on repellents.
* Avoid the outdoors at dusk and dawn (when mosquitoes are most active), and wear long pants and long sleeved shirts if you must go outside.
* Get rid of mosquito breeding sites by emptying standing water from flowerpots, bucket and barrels, and by changing the water in pet dishes and replacing the water in bird baths weekly.
* Keep mosquitoes out with good screens on your windows and doors.

To prevent exposure to ticks and tick-borne diseases:
* Steer clear of wooded areas with lots of leaf litter, bushes or tall grasses, and wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and long socks if you're headed to such areas.
* Tuck in shirts into pants and pant legs into socks to prevent ticks from getting inside your clothing.
* Wear light-colored clothing to help spot ticks easily.
* Check your outer clothing frequently and thoroughly while you are outdoors and when you come inside.
* Use duct tape or lint rollers to remove ticks from clothing.

If you find a tick on your body, remove it promptly with fine tipped tweezers. Lyme disease-causing ticks may be small, but they require 24 hours to 48 hours of attachment to transmit the infection.

By taking a few precautions, you can ensure that you stay itch- and disease-free during the summer season!

Photo by Chiya Li, courtesy iStockphoto

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