Skeeters, ticks may cause more than itch this summer

I recall when I was just a boy (well, I can barely remember it) when the worst we had to fear from biting insects was the itch they left behind. That does not take into consideration the dreaded black widow spider of which I am still petrified.

Something about the lustrous black body and the vibrant red hourglass depict evil incarnate. I know better, of course, and understand that a spider, even a lethal one, is just one of nature's tools. But I'm also afraid of a chainsaw, so tool or not, it scares me.

Chiggers (also known as red bugs and several other names not fit to print), fleas, ticks and mosquitoes plagued us all summer long.

Chiggers were especially devious, biting into places they had no business going and where my mom absolutely refused to permit me to scratch.

I also recall my mom urging us to inspect ourselves when we came in from playing in the yard, traipsing through the woods or fishing on the creek behind our house, just to make sure we weren't bringing ticks inside. There was an occasional outbreak of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. but I figured that upstate South Carolina was far removed from the Rocky Mountains so didn't pay it much mind.

And mosquitoes were just annoying little pests, buzzing around while I tried to wait patiently for fish to bite and causing unsightly and uncomfortable rashes on my skin.

I've learned since that biting insects, especially ticks and mosquitoes, can cause more than a bit of discomfort. I had a friend who caught encephalitis one summer. They never said exactly how he got it, but mosquitoes were suspect. He was about as close to the Pearly Gates as you can get without actually dusting your feet off on the other side before he rallied and finally got better. It was a close call. That's when I started to respect the pesky mosquito.

And lately they've added a new disease to their arsenal of biological weapons, West Nile Virus. I don't know anyone personally who's come down with this disease but from what I've read, it's pretty awful. And it can be deadly.

This summer could be a bad one for mosquitoes. Many areas had more than a usual amount of rain during the winter, so breeding grounds are abundant.

Jim Olson, a Texas A&M entomologist, says mosquito populations are on the rise due to warm, wet weather.

He says the best way to protect yourself is to limit evening activities when possible. He also recommends using an insect repellant.

“The DEET-containing repellants are still the most effective but other products and organic repellants will work for awhile.”

Citronella candles repel mosquitoes but are most effective in enclosed patios and other confined spaces. The candles won't work if conditions are windy, which is most of the time in Texas.

He says eliminating standing water from around homes also limits breeding sites.

And mosquito dunks may help. The dunks, shaped like small donuts, use Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti), which is non-toxic to humans, are inexpensive, can be simply dropped into the breeding pools and last for months.

It also may be a good year for ticks, which carry not only Rocky Mountain spotted fever but also Lymes disease and a disease called ehrlichiosis, says Texas A&M entomologist Pete Teel.

He says the number of Lymes disease cases in Texas declined from 125 in 2001 to 55 in 2002 and the cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever remained the same at three, but the number of human ehrlichiosis cases increased from none in 2001 to three in 2002. The disease can be life-threatening, but such cases are rare.

Again, prevention is the best policy. Insect repellants help. I've also heard that wearing long pants and tying the cuffs around boots helps prevent ticks from getting to the skin. And, like my mom said, inspect yourself when you come inside. And watch where you scratch, for goodness sakes.

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